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Mind, systems and the sacred:

A paradigm change in values

for environmental survival?

Noel G. Charlton

"There is no precedent for the change in prospect. Building an environmentally sustainable future depends on restructuring the global economy, major shifts in human reproductive behaviour, and dramatic changes in values and lifestyles. Doing all this quickly adds up to a revolution......

Social change occurs in response either to new information or to new experience.... Social and economic change always starts with individuals, even when it occurs within large organisations.... Strong visionary leaders can accelerate the Environmental Revolution, but in democracies, government policies and priorities broadly reflect the concerns and priorities of the people..... It is in the most fundamental sense a social revolution: the product of changing values, of seeing ourselves again as part of nature rather than apart from nature."(1)

(1) Brown, L. R., et. al., "State of the World, 1992" Report of the Worldwatch Institute, Earthscan, London, 1992. Ch. 11. (L.R. Brown), pp.174-178.



I offer my grateful thanks for help in developing the ideas contained in this paper to Theodore Roszak and Fritjof Capra for lengthy conversations at Schumacher College, to other members of staff and course participants there, to Henryk Skolimowski for correspondence and for a day of discussion at his summer home in the mountain village of Theologos in the Greek island of Thassos, to the staff of the philosophy department at Lancaster and to many friends and fellow students. Not least, I thank my wife Jean and the members of the Rivendell Community in which I live and work for the patience, encouragement, tolerance and sharing of my workload that has made all this possible.


NOTE: Part of the material outlined below was from lectures and discussions with Fritjof Capra and from conversations with Henryk Skolimowski. Capra has now published his "Theory of Living Systems" in "The Web of Life", Harper-Collins, London, 1996. Skolimowski has published his recent thinking in "The Participative Mind", Arkana (Penguin), London, 1994.

Noel G. Charlton, November, 1996.






The Paradigm Change

Four Thinkers

The New Understanding of Mind

Religious Process

The New Cosmology

Evolution and Transcendence

Telos and Teleology

Theology and the Paradigm Change

Strategies and Values for Survival



"We have to have in mind not an orthodoxy but a wide and compassionate recognition of the storm of ideas in which we are all living and in which we must make our nests - find spiritual rest - as best we can." Gregory Bateson.(1)

Many environmentalists believe that an acute and urgent threat to the planetary biosphere exists, due to human industrial and military activities. Though other thinkers dispute this opinion it is, at the very least, expedient to consider the threat as a serious possibility and so, in this paper, I assume that there is a need to search for ways that may avert such disaster.

After setting out the assumed situation of risk I will examine the paradigm change that seems to be occurring in scientific and environmental thinking. I will consider the emergence of new ways of thinking about "mind" and sanity, the effect of new understandings of cosmology and evolution and consequent teleological implications.

In particular, I wish to claim, as a newly emergent and perhaps surprising possibility, that due to these inter-related changes, it is now becoming possible to see some processes and attitudes previously labelled "religious" as having ontological validity. Whereas these processes were seen as unreal or imaginary, dependent on "the supernatural" and hence marginal to consideration of the real world, they now appear as processes evident in natural systems.

I further claim that, because religious processes can influence human action in unique ways, these modes of relating to the world may be necessary tools for enabling a sufficiently widespread and speedy human response to the global threat. These are not new processes but they may be re-enabled by new ontological understanding.


(1) Bateson, G. and M. C., "Angels Fear: An Investigation into the Nature and Meaning of the Sacred", Rider (Century/Hutchinson), London, 1988. pp. 178-9.

I suggest that the recovery of some values and attitudes that we have previously characterised as religious may be a necessary precondition of effective human action in maintaining the biosphere.

In supporting these claims I will examine the recent work of four thinkers and writers: Gregory Bateson, Fritjof Capra, Theodore Roszak and Henryk Skolimowski and some recent and parallel trends in Christian theology.

Lester Brown, of the Worldwatch Institute, warns: "We only have twenty years left on this planet to mend our ways". It is now a commonplace assertion that the future of life on earth is threatened by our industrial, scientific and military activities. Apathy, self-interest, industrial greed and narrow nationalism continue to endanger the biosphere. Our situation is unique in human experience. Never before have we faced global responsibility. The leaders of the world's religions have met in Assisi, world governments have conferred in Rio, grave pronouncements have been made and little has been done.

I claim, and in what follows assume, that cohesive actions taken by societies are largely determined by the values and attitudes prevalent in the society. If action is supported by the beliefs and normative judgements of the majority, it is likely to be undertaken. The actions of Fascist German society, the attitude of starving Hindus who preserve edible sacred cattle or the ritually controlled respect for the environment of Native American tribes are cases in point.

In our own case, the currently prevailing values of exploitation, self-interest and short-term expediency in the dominant Western society seem unlikely to effect the necessary changes. We already have a surfeit of information about the issues, the media is saturated with environmental stories and warnings, the subject is a significant element at all levels of education, Governments and Churches pay lip service to the needs but no general move of the magnitude necessary is evident. Commercial and military expediency still controls decision making. If the actions of societies follow from their dominant values and attitudes then we must look for profound changes, adopted by the majority and reflected in active decision making very soon.

I also claim that values and attitudes are influenced by the society's understanding of the world in which it is placed. Present and previous worldviews have produced very different values: contrast Athens and Sparta, the Native Americans and the immigrant settlers from Europe, peasant village India and the industrial West. There is not space to develop further support for this claim here but it is supported by the work of the writers discussed below and I assume its truth in what follows. The key assertion is that an appropriate worldview, an accurate understanding of our relationship to the world, will generate values that are fitting for the situation of global society. Our attitudes and, hence, our actions are thus dependant on our epistemology, on our ways of knowing about the world. It follows that our present need is for a worldview that recognises such imperatives as the fragility of the biosphere and the interdependency of species; a new and appropriate mindset could be expected to effect change in human behaviour.


Many thinkers and writers are recognising that such a "paradigm change" is occurring in scientific, philosophical and technological thought. Such "discontinuous evolutionary changes" in the development of new general perceptions of reality were emphasised by Thomas Kuhn thirty years ago(1) and all four of the writers I will discuss in some detail below believe that we are in the midst of such a change:

Gregory Bateson, writing not later than 1980(2) was saying:

"We are in extraordinary confusion at this very moment. Our beliefs are undergoing rapid change at a pace comparable to the rate at which things were changing in classical Greece, say between 600 and 500 BC, or again at the beginning of the Christian Era..... The old beliefs are wearing thin and there is a groping for new."

As he claimed in "The Turning Point",(3) and re-emphasised in the 1993 Schumacher seminars,(4) Fritjof Capra believes that there is an overall paradigm shift in progress. He defines paradigms (after Kuhn) as inter-related networks of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community. They are reflected in social organisation, embodied in institutions but only become visible when they are outdated. Capra sees the present paradigm shift as bringing about a change in values. Such changes include moves from:

thinking towards intuition

self assertion



homeostasis (homeoresis)





analysis of small parts





non-linear (cyclic)







(1) Kuhn, T., "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", University of Chicago Press, 1962.

(2) Bateson. op. cit. p. 178.

(3) Capra, F., "The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture", Flamingo (Fontana), London, 1983. pp. 11-15.

(4) Capra, F., "Ecology, Gaia and the Systems View of Life", Schumacher College, Devon, 31/5/93-1/7/93.

Henryk Skolimowski(1) claims that a similar transition is occurring which he expresses in value terms:



manipulative, controlling












Theodore Roszak, writing as early as 1972:(2) saw this change as a progressive abandonment of dualism:

"Here and now, as we restore the borders of reality, we are at the stage of closing up all the traditional dichotomies of western culture which have served as the bulwarks of the old Reality Principle. Spirit-flesh, reason-passion, mad-sane, objective-subjective, fact-value, natural-supernatural, intellect-intuition, human-non-human... all the familiar dualisms which have divided the spectrum of consciousness vanish as we create the higher sanity.... Even science, in its awkward single-visioned way, has been drawn to continuities that baffle traditional assumptions. It can no longer draw hard lines between matter and energy, organic and inorganic, man and lower animal, law and the indeterminate, mind and body."

Though many of the trends evident in the paradigm change appear to be desirable and necessary for avoiding the environmental catastrophe now threatened,(3) there is real risk that it will take too long for these changes to become part of general public understanding and, hence, of effective decision making in commerce, industry, economics and politics. These changes may not be effected without a general adoption of values reflecting responsibility and generosity towards other social and national groups, future generations, other species and the total interactive web of the biosphere. The question is: what influences can produce such a profound change in attitudes and values quickly enough?

(1) Skolimowski, H., "A Sacred Place to Dwell: Living with Reverence on the Earth", Element Books, 1993. p. 21.

(2) Roszak, T., "Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-industrial Society", Doubleday, New York, 1972, new edn. Celestial Arts/Robert Doubleday, Berkley, 1989. p. 462.

(3) For a good analysis of the risks (and another assertion that "a major change in our habitual patterns of thought is essential" though little idea of what values might fuel the changes of attitude he commends) see Tickell, C., "The Quality of Life: What Quality? Whose life?" in Environmental Values, No.1., Spring, 1992, pp. 65-76.

What is needed is a general public acceptance of the need for a move away from high consumption lifestyles towards sustainability, to co-operation rather than competition, to sharing rather than greed. It will be necessary for societies to agree to redistribute resources where inequity exists, to move, in the words of the now world famous non faith-specific "Prayer for Peace":(1)

"...from despair to hope, from fear to trust, from hate to love, from war to peace..."

Notable among the emphases of the present paradigm change are new understandings of the history and development of the cosmos, of the interrelatedness of objects and events (stemming from particle physics), of the nature of mind, of evolution and transcendence and of teleological process. These new insights form the preconditions of a surprising ontological change by which processes and values that are essentially "religious" are being transferred from the realm of the supernatural into that of the natural world.

Such religious processes and attitudes include the following: the ability to regard the natural world (including humans and their activities) as worthy objects of reverential feeling; a sense of the self as significant and meaningful in the processes of the cosmos, resulting in feelings of "being at home" in the world, feelings for which the term "grace" is appropriate, and the resurrection of the concept of sacredness as a value relating to real entities and processes. The key process is the experiencing of the self as immersed in, and merged with, a meaningful and greater process, a merging with a larger reality. This sense of oneness is what members of many religious faiths have called a relationship with the deity, with God. God too is now being seen as purposeful process rather than as entity or person.

(1) The Prayer for Peace was created by Satish Kumar and promoted by Mother Theresa. It is not specific to any deity or religion and is used in over forty languages, traditionally at mid-day, local time, around the world.

What, then, of the more traditional processes of religion such as ritual, worship and celebration? Many people are finding these activities appropriate in healing, in relating to such concepts as Gaia, the earth as process, mental and physical healing or the extension of the sense of the self to environment as in Deep Ecology. Again, the ontological status granted to these experiences is that of something as real as thought or mind or energy, existing in the natural world as process. Much of the language is necessarily metaphorical but metaphor also is being granted status as one of the ways in which we can most vividly and meaningfully come to know the world. All this is discussed in more detail below in considering the work of Bateson, Capra, Roszak and Skolimowski.

This is a newly non-supernatural understanding of religious activity, a new ontology derived from evident processes within the natural world. I believe that this new understanding may be a key factor in generating an appropriate worldview for our society.


One facet of the present paradigm change is the re-introduction of "religious" language to the environmental and philosophical discourses. Terms such as "reverence", "spiritual", "grace" and "the sacred" are now freely used about the relationships of people to other people and to the natural world. I instance a few examples in illustration of the trend:

Prince Charles, speaking at the inauguration of a new Institute of Architecture in London,(1) accused mechanistic science of denying humanity's "sense of the sacred", a process to be resisted by finding a "continual sense of awe and reverence" that "comes from øthe heart". He cited the feeling of "anxiety that something is missing" as we create an "age without spirit". Spirit is, for him, the feeling of one-ness with the natural world and with "the creative force that we call God which lies at the central point of all.....an experience...both pagan and Christian...the fundamental expression of what we call religion."

(1) H.R.H. Prince Charles, "Age Without Spirit", Resurgence No. 153, July/August, 1992. pp. 4-5.

The environmental philosopher R. D. Ryder lists seven motives for being an environmentalist.(1) The two motives that he finds to be non-speciesist are "the mystical...characterised by a deep poetic feeling of reverence for nature" and "compassion which... is close to the mystical.."

Holmes Rolston III sees the absence of eagles from the sky as "spiritual loss".(2) For him, "the natural dialectic is the cradle of our spirituality" and there is "hope in some blessed, sacred point; and bread, water, wine, paths, fatherhood, motherhood, mountains, rivers, light and darkness are not incidentally among our richest sacraments".(3)

Charlene Spretnak, writer on eco-feminism, women's spirituality and Green politics, describes spirituality as an experienced interconnectedness, the sense of being embedded in a sacred whole as part of the earth community. She sees ecological postmodernism as itself becoming a "wisdom tradition" and claims such disparate religious philosophers as A.N. Whitehead and Mary Daly in support of the idea that the divine is becoming recognised as a process, "as the verb 'becoming'" rather than as a noun.(4) She sees "grace" as the experience of realising that our mind participates in the larger mind of the planet and the universe.(5)

Jonathan Porritt, speaking at Lancaster University,(6) claimed that the necessary moves for the development of an effective green political process include "bearing witness", giving service, reverence for the natural world and the redevelopment of our capacity for celebration.

(1) Ryder, R.D., "Painism: Ethics, Animal Rights and Environmentalism", Centre for Applied Ethics, University of Wales College of Cardiff, 1992, pp. 11-12.

(2) Rolston, H., "Is There an Ecological Ethic" in Ethics, Vol. 85, 1985,

p. 104.

(3) Rolston, H., "Values in Nature", Environmental Ethics, Vol.3, 1981, p. 128.

(4) Spretnak, C., "States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Post-modern Age", Harper, San Francisco, 1991. (Harper-Collins edn. 1993, p. 231.)

(5) Spretnak, C., op. cit. p. 25.

(6) Porritt, J., Lecture: "Next Moves for the Green Movement", Lancaster University, 3/3/94.


Within western Christianity, there is a parallel and complementary trend in theology which emphasises process, the natural world as revelation and the importance of social and ecological concern. David Steindl-Rast and Thomas Matus, Roman Catholic theologians in discussion with Fritjof Capra(1) claim that contemporary theology is moving from the polemical to the integrative (e.g. understanding other traditions), from generating theological propositions to story-telling, from preoccupation with the discursive,(2) analytical and reductive to the intuitive and to holistic synthesis, from the propositional and abstract to the poetic, metaphorical and experiential.

In Christian mission the emphasis has moved from conversion and preaching to service, witness, "illustrating the good news" and conveying joy. All this is, in part, a recovery of the early Christian paradigm but there are new things added: the feminist perspective, our newly global awareness and the present danger of ecological disaster. These trends are discussed in more detail below.


There is a great deal of work being done in the area of the interface between environmentalism and religious process. Theodore Roszak's most recent book "The Voice of the Earth"(3) contains a bibliography, produced by Paul Fayter of York University, Canada, detailing 118 serious works dealing with the "New Deism", published since 1980, excluding works dealing with science and eastern theologies. Roszak believes that the agnostic orthodoxy of science is now significantly questioned and that the renewed exchange has profound implications for environmentalism. He claims that the relationship between religious thought and natural philosophy, broken off at the end of the enlightenment and now no longer tied to Christian apologetics, is restored,

(1) Capra, F., Steindl-Rast, D. and Matus, T. "Belonging to the Universe", Penguin, London, 1992. pp. 76, 79-80.

(2) Steindl-Rast and Matus prefer the term "discursive" to describe the rational discourse because they do not want to imply an opposition between rationality and the intuitive. They regard the latter as a deeply rational process.

(3) Roszak, T., "The Voice of the Earth", Bantam Press, London, 1993. pp. 323-5.


I intend to examine the work of four thinkers who, together, evidence the progress of the paradigm change and articulate an understanding of the emerging ecological values and the eco-spiritual discourse without recourse to any belief in the supernatural. These writers are particularly fitted to consider the issues raised by bringing religious process back into the epistemology of the real world. All have lived and worked in the American culture of consumerism and each (Bateson, Capra and Skolimowski were immigrants from England, Austria and Poland respectively and Roszak is the son of an immigrant family) offers the maverick stranger's critical analysis of mainstream thought.


"...the Ten Commandments, the rules of morphogenesis and embryology and the premises of grammar in animal and human communication are all part of the vast mental process which is immanent in our world and is as real, and as unreal, as syllogistic logic."(1)

Bateson; biologist, anthropologist, psychologist and lifelong atheist came, knowing that he was terminally ill, to the examination of transcendence through his seminal thinking about systems theory.(2) The result was a new and essentially religious conception of mind in the world. Though Gregory Bateson died in 1980 he was at the time working on "Angels Fear" with his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson who completed the unfinished manuscript as "the collaboration he intended".(3) She claims to have left unaltered Bateson's thinking and theoretical structure, being familiar with the material from years of discussion. For this reason, though substantial parts of the text are actually written by her, I have simply attributed to "Bateson" the material discussed in the following sections.

(1) Bateson, G. & M. C., 1988, p. 162.

(2) Bateson, G., "Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity", Dutton, London, 1979.

(3) Bateson, G. & M. C., 1988, p. 1.


"... Most of today's physicists do not seem to realise the philosophical, cultural and spiritual implications of their theories. Many..... support a society which is still based on the mechanistic, fragmented world view, without seeing that science points beyond such a view towards a oneness of the universe which includes not only our natural environment but also our fellow human beings."(1)

Capra, physicist and systems theorist, deeply influenced by Bateson, himself having discarded Catholicism and later come to see the insights of the new physics already reflected in the meditative traditions of Buddhism and Taoism, has been led to a re-examination of religious process - not least by the responsibility of offering a spirituality to his young daughter.

He acknowledges the formative influence of Bateson on the development of his own "theory of living systems": "Gregory Bateson..... broadened my world view by placing life at its centre."(2)

While Bateson, in articulating his theory of mind, offers a comprehensible notion of process that could equate with "God" and a recognition of religious processes as necessary to ecological understanding, Capra stops short of this in his public offerings. He is a scientist, intent on remaining credible to scientists, and will not publish thinking that he cannot support by proof. Nevertheless, his "theory of living systems" offers a further view of mindlike processes in nature and may influence many different aspects of the new paradigm. It is a synthesis of work by several thinkers, notably Ilya Prigogine(3), Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela(4), as well as Bateson. A summary appears in Chapter 9 of "The Turning Point"(5) but Capra's current thinking (so far unpublished) was the subject of a month-long course at Schumacher College, Devon in 1993.(6)

(1) Capra, F. "The Tao of Physics", Flamingo (2nd. edn), London, 1983, pp. 339-40.

(2),(5) Capra, F., "The Turning Point - Science, Society and the Rising Culture", Flamingo (Fontana), London, 1983. pp. 285-332.

(3) Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I., "Order out of Chaos", Heinemann, London, 1984.

Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I., "From Being to Becoming", Freeman, San Francisco, 1980.

(4) Maturana, H. and Varela, F., "The Tree of Knowledge", Shambhala, Boston, 3rd. edn. 1992.

(6) Capra, F., "Ecology, Gaia and the Systems View of Life", Schumacher College, Devon, 31/5/93 - 1/7/93. Lecture notes and materials, tapes of tutorials and personal conversations.


"The physicists themselves are reluctant or perhaps unable to draw the larger philosophical consequences from their stories. They are especially reluctant to draw theological consequences from their researches. But hear it: a new view of the universe, which at the same time is a new view of the human - as we are no longer expected to be docile observers of the universe, but rather active participants in bringing about what is potentially there."(1)

Skolimowski, philosopher and environmentalist, is highly critical of analytical philosophy. He regards western Christianity as antipathetic to environmental wellbeing but is still hopeful for its future influence. He has been influenced by Teilhard de Chardin as well as by Bateson to propose an eco-philosophy and an eco-theology based on evolution as the pre-eminent religious process. For him, "God" is synonymous with the processes of transcendence that drive evolution; humankind is charged with responsibility for the evolutionary future.


"What is the measure of sickness for society as a whole? Surely.... the species that destroys its own habitat in pursuit of false values, in wilful ignorance of what it does, is 'mad' if the word means anything..... If psychosis is the attempt to live a lie, the epidemic psychosis of our time is the lie of believing that we have no ethical obligation to our planetary home..... Those who wish to make some greater philosophical sense of the emerging worldview of our day will have to address questions of a frankly religious character.""(2)

Roszak, historian and futurist, having also rejected Catholicism in youth, provides a broad perspective of thought about the implications of the new science, teleology, the nature of sanity in society and our need for reconnection to the natural world. He approaches the question of mind via the issues surrounding "personhood"(3) as true individuality, psychology and the meaning of "sanity" and "madness" for individuals and societies. He recognises religious process as deeply concerned with the sense of connection to the natural world and finds teleological process to be implicit in the working of natural systems. He sees many concepts

(1) Skolimowski, 1993. p. 92.

(2) Roszak, 1993, pp. 70, 16, 102-3.

(3) Roszak, T., "Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society", Gollancz, London, 1977.

from religion as "philosophically rich, scientifically useful" especially teleology, final cause and emergence. His thinking offers "a new (oblique) concept of God with the focus on mentality rather than divinity, not at all on parental authority."(1) A perception of spirit, creative will and intentionality (inherited from animism) could be the "metaphysical scaffolding of a new cosmology". Like Bateson he sees metaphorical processes of communication as deeply significant. He believes that psychology, the search for sanity, is really concerned with the "health of the soul"; it is thus a philosophical undertaking, about ethics, moral purpose and the meaning of life.

All four of these writers recognise the importance of the insights of "new science" and share the belief that the trends they describe may lead to more responsible human action in the world.

My intention in the following sections is to look first at the emerging understanding of mind in the cosmos and its implications for the status of religious process as seen by these men. I then consider their understanding of cosmology as meaningful process, its effect on the sense of significance in our lives, the extension of this process into the understanding of evolution and the consequent new emphasis on teleology. I will conclude by drawing out what are seen as the possible ways forward to a viable ecosystemic and human future.

Bracketed page numbers in the following text refer to the main sources detailed in the above footnotes: for Bateson - "Angels Fear", for Skolimowski - "A Sacred Place to Dwell" and for Roszak - "The Voice of the Earth". Unless otherwise footnoted, material from Capra is drawn from the 1993 Schumacher College discussions and lectures.

(1) Roszak, 1993, p. 104.



Bateson sees contemporary beliefs as undergoing rapid change, the very premises of language are, he claims, in question. So, again, is the old matter of the relation between body and mind which has been the central theme of world religions. We know little about the direction of change and nothing about where it will end. He sees the focus of today's changes as the need for a new and unitary solution to the mind-body problem. The present conceptual separation of mind and matter is the product of "an insufficient holism". Concentrating on the parts we fail to see the characteristics of the whole and we then attribute the phenomena resulting from wholeness to the supernatural.

Bateson offers a new understanding of mind as process at many levels of being. For him, mental processes are not limited to association with human (or any other) brains and do not entail consciousness, let alone self-consciousness. "Minds" are processes rather than "things". By definition they include all examples of systemic process wherein the interaction of the parts is triggered by difference, requires collateral energy and circular (rather than linear) chains of determination, shows the effects of difference as coded versions of the preceding events and in which the "description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena". (18-19) Such "minds" would include organisms such as bacteria, parts of organisms such as individual cells or organs and also systems of multiple organisms such as social groups, societies or ecosystems. A key idea is that all minds are nested within larger minds: a bacterium may be nested within a cell, organ, body, society, ecosystem and so on. Each of these entities is "mindlike" in its activity and any given mind is likely to be a sub-system in some larger or more complex mind. Such "mental process" therefore includes the processes of embryology, evolution and all exchanges of information and injunction within and between organisms.

For Bateson mind is life. All living things "make and receive news". Information is "a difference that makes a difference" and exists only in the world of living things - "Creatura". Bateson borrows from Jung(1) the terminology of "Pleroma" (the inanimate world of forces and impacts) and "Creatura" (the world of life, distinctions and differences).(13) These worlds interpenetrate and are only separable as levels of description so no real dualism is proposed.(18) Bateson's theory is one of connections, not dichotomy (20) and he emphatically rejects Cartesian dualism between mind and matter. Similarly, he denies the usefulness of linear logic for the relationships contained in Creatura, where trains of causation (as in cybernetics) are circular and information transfer is achieved by a process resembling metaphor in which patterns and relationships are, for instance, compared, matched or copied. Logic is, for Bateson, blemished by linear thinking; ecological thinking is circular, cyclical. Formal logic rejects the validity of the metaphorical connections so pervasive in nature.(143-4) All non (or pre-) verbal communication depends on metaphor (e.g. evolutionary coding).(28) Bateson was fond of using the example of a heating system to show that even non-living material objects (thermostat, switches, furnace, walls etc.) can be related so as to allow mental process (the maintenance of a desired state) to operate.(2) So, for Bateson, the mental is the organisational. It is accessible to study but it is not a thing. This, he claims, allows development of a monistic, unified way of looking at the world in which mind and matter are interdependent(50-51). He claims that this understanding of mind permits precise, systematic attention to "religious matters", in which he includes love, the sacred, wisdom and mind itself.(6-7)

His new view, for Bateson, amounts to a release from the ontological limitations of "hard science". All knowledge of things or relationships exists only in Creatura - all maps, names, ideas, relationships, webs of

metaphor, understandings of meaning, significance, interrelationship and co-dependence are in the living world and not in the world of impacts and forces which are the proper domain of old science. Healing (and

(1) Jung, C.G., "Septem Sermones ad Mortuos", Stuart & Watkins, London, 1967.

(2) Capra, F. "Uncommon Wisdom", Flamingo (Harper/Collins) London, 1989. pp. 78, 82-3.

suffering) and life is mental process.(65). Hence, all understanding of aesthetics, religion and God is of the creatural kind, it is process, mind-like, not material or thing-like and therefore is not subject to or relevant for hard science.

Bateson believes that we cannot know with certainty about things but we can know about relationships between things. Qualities exist in the relationship between the observer and the object; "...it is a man-made notion that "hardness" is immanent in one end of a binary relationship".(157) Epistemology (because what is, for all human purposes, equals what can be known) is not distinct from ontology. He prefers to define epistemology as "the science that studies the process of knowing".(20)


Bateson proceeds to offer an argument for very large mental systems which may equate with what we have in the past called "God", systems of ecosystemic size and larger within which human minds would be subsystems.(135-144) Using illustrations from Greek mythology, he demonstrates the recognition by societies of large impersonal forces, themes and tendencies.

Though Bateson has "great difficulty in discussing the vast mental organisation of the world and...... in discussing the parts of it, .... it seems to him that we can, with care, talk about how that vast organisation thinks. We can "explore the kind of links it uses between its propositions, while we can never know what it thinks about." These links, he believes, are necessarily regular. They form a part of the "eternal verities". Among them are the processes inherent in DNA, embryo and body, the structure of brain-processes and thought and "all discourse which bonds together the phenomena of any ecosystem". These bonds are not unbreakable but there are inescapable consequences.(158) Thus, "....sinning against ecology produces involuntary retribution ..... The ecological God is incorruptible and therefore is not mocked."(142-3)

He suggests that structure (as normative process) is equivalent to God and that the attempt to describe and understand structure is a religious activity. "I am trying" he writes, "to investigate the communicational regularities in the biosphere, assuming that in doing so, I shall also be investigating interwoven regularities in a system so pervasive and so determinant that we may even apply the word "god" to it.......whom we might call Eco."(142)

The concept of "Eco" is not offered as "a God that people might believe in. We could believe him to represent an accurate idea" but such a system would not be "concerned with good and bad in any simple way, ... not be provided with free will." In talking about Eco, Bateson is "trying to make people think about Creatura, about mental process. ... the connectedness that holds all life and evolution together." This mental entity is "beautiful and terrible, Shiva and Abraxas."(149-50) The communicative fabric of the living world is ordered, pervasive, determinant "even to the point where one might say of it "that is what men have meant by God".(151)

It seems, therefore, that Bateson's "god" would not, in its manifestation as "very large mental system" have any concern for individual organisms, could not "love" or "cherish" its "believers". Moral concerns could only be relevant as representing preferences for behaviour that would tend toward homeostasis or evolution towards "maximum differentiation, complexity and elegance".(175) It is important to realise that Bateson denies all possibility of the supernatural. The mental process he, half jokingly, calls Eco exists entirely within the natural universe of material and life-processes. It interpenetrates and is itself comprised of the universal totality.

I would suggest, however, that since very large mental systems must consist of all the nested minds within them as well as the functional identity that flows from their own macro level of activity, that there will be levels in the hierarchy of minds (e.g. societies, communities, social groupings, persons) at which individual interests are recognised and acted upon. Bateson's model depicts each "mind" as being in some way distinct; as conforming to a higher or lower logical type. It would, alternatively, be possible to think in terms of a continuum of interpenetrative mind, any point on which would be subject to influence from (and would influence) mental activity on higher and lower levels. This second model may make it easier to see that concern with moral or ethical activity at the societal or personal level is not necessarily precluded by accepting the equivalence of a universal mental system with "god". Either of these models seems to be a very much more comprehensible way of understanding such ideas as responsibility, immanence, transcendence or the place of one's own life in the cosmic reality than is any traditional religious system.

Bateson's thinking has had profound influence on subsequent theorists including Capra, Varela, Maturana, Prigogine and Skolimowski. His contribution to this field is unique: as a scientist, seeking to bring rigour to the analysis of areas that have so far been seen as entirely metaphysical, he insists that there is no need to go beyond the "natural" to examine and understand religious process.


Capra's living systems, particularly in the aspects of the theory related to process, are seen in very similar ways to the processes of Bateson's "minds" or mental systems and, in some ways, the theory amounts to an extension of Bateson's own work. He claims that his theory overcomes the Cartesian divisions, offering a complete "psychosomatic system", a general theory emphasising ecological thinking for all the sciences, providing a language for ecological discourse. His "living systems" (like Bateson's mental systems) may be cells, organisms, social systems or ecosystems and are similarly nested within larger systems, ranging from sub-cellular organisms to the planetary biosphere. The key concept is that of "self-organisation" within systems

Inevitably, all aspects of the theory inter-penetrate but, for conceptual purposes, a useful division into the areas of structure, pattern and process can be made.

Pattern is the totality of the relationships that define the living system; the configuration of internal and external relationships. "Autopoietic" living systems (from Maturana and Varela) are "self making": such systems receive energy and material from outside but are otherwise self-sufficient. Such systems are both stable and constantly changing, the pattern of organisation remaining recognisable through constant renewal of sub-systems; death at one level permits the system (at higher levels) to live. Pattern enables the maintenance of living organisms far from equilibrium. Another key concept is that of "emergent properties" which are capacities of systems that become evident and operative at sufficiently high levels of organisation. Among such emergent properties are those of growth, reproduction and consciousness.

Structure is the physical realisation of the pattern of organisation (molecule, organism, ecosystem, society) but this is much more than chemical or cellular structure. Prigogine's "dissipative structures" are autopoietic, open in terms of energy, closed in terms of organisation, necessarily so in order to maintain a non-equilibrium state. Prigogine's emphasis is on the way these systems "dissipate entropy", taking in material and energy, using it to operate far from equilibrium and externalising high entropy material. In terms of Prigogine's biology (as distinct from reductionist physics) the world is being moved to a greater state of order by the action of living systems dissipating entropy.

Indeterminacy is an essential aspect of these systems because, at moments of "choice", systems opt unpredictably, from their own internal resources, for courses of action. From indeterminacy results variety, beauty, uniqueness. The "choices" made by systems are, in principle, irreversible. Prigogine claims this as a constructive phenomenon, in that living systems bring order into being within themselves, though disorder in the environment is thus increased. Energy brought into systems is used to move the system to higher levels of organisation.

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