Random header image... Refresh for more!

Ecology and Physics

By Guido Dalla Casa
January 2009

At the inception of modern science three centuries ago, physics was a mechanical science with Isaac Newton as its principal founder. Modern western culture still essentially revolves around the Newtonian idea of space and time, ascribing a mechanical nature to most phenomena. The dogmatic idea of a real and objective material world that is completely separate from a mental/spiritual world is the “evident” background of modern science. In other words, Newtonian science accepts the Cartesian chasm without critiquing it.

Conventional science remains limited by the philosophical milieu into which it was born three centuries ago, still strictly bound by the Newtonian-Cartesian view of reality. The whole universe, included living nature on Earth, is seen as a giant machine that can be pulled apart and put together again. As a consequence, Nature has no ethical meaning. Mankind is not seen as part of Nature, but is viewed as being different. Hence the fight against Nature, leading to increased ecological stress.

Because modern western science was born against the background of a particular philosophical view, it has no validity even according to its own scientific method. Its essentially mechanistic view is taken for granted and not viewed as a working hypothesis. Is the metaphysics of an age the physics of the previous age? The present mechanistic/materialistic view comes directly from 19th century physics, not from ideas born in the 20th century. Modern science still strongly resists any paradigmatic change that could modify its general interpretation.

This article briefly reviews some of the major philosophical breakthroughs in western scientific thinking of the past century: relativity, quantum physics, system theory, and the study of mental phenomena. It then considers the cultural consequences of our behaviour towards the natural world if a new scientific paradigm would become acceptable, in the hope that an ethic could arise that includes the natural world and which could result in a beneficial influence on today’s mounting ecological problems.

Classical physics

In his book The Turning Point (New York, 1982) Fritjof Capra wrote:

In contrast to the mechanistic, Cartesian world-view, the emerging view from modern physics can be called organic, holistic and ecological; or a systemic view, in the meaning of general system theory. Universe is not viewed as a machine composed by a lot of objects, but as a not-divided, dynamic whole, with completely interconnected parts that we can understand only as dynamic patterns of a cosmic becoming.
(Translated from the Italian version of the book)

The classical background of physics, which remained almost up to the middle of 20th century, posits the existence of an objective, material world with its own physical laws. The observer’s task is to find these objectively existing laws. All phenomena occur in space and time, which are absolute and existing independent entities. The first crack in this mechanistic view came in the 19th century with thermodynamics and the concept of field. But thermodynamics was explained as a statistical-probabilistic mechanical movement and field was reduced to a mathematical concept useful for simplifying calculation. The mechanistic view was strengthened by these explanations.

The only non-mechanical development was Maxwell’s electromagnetic wave theory. But again, the atomic theory of matter strengthened the mechanistic world-view: the 92 “small balls” (atoms) became the building-blocks of reality. Radioactivity, which appeared around the turn of the century, showed that atoms are not indestructible, but are themselves composed of smaller particles: protons, electrons, and later, neutrons. The “balls” are much smaller, but there was no fundamental change of concept, the three “elementary particles” being described as the universal constituents of matter.


With special relativity (1905), space and time lost their own independent and absolute existence and matter and energy became the same thing. With general relativity (1916), gravitational fields became the “geometry of space-time.” Scientists could now write physical laws valid in any reference system, for any kind of movement: acceleration takes place within a gravitational field. The revolution in concept seemed fundamental, but scientific thinking was still bound by the Cartesian view. Matter and energy may be interchangeable, but the principal chasm remains: there exists an objective energy/matter world that can be explored by a separated human mind.

Matter impenetrability (the empty-full dualism) and the logic “A cannot be not-A” are still considered obviously true. Everything, any problem, any process, can be divided in smaller and smaller parts, with no attention being paid to the fact that any such reduction cannot be neutral nor always valid, because is brought into being by philosophical prejudice. Non-quantifying and non-measurable entities are denied.

Present thinking has perhaps accepted the energy-matter unification, but it still stops short. Energy and matter are physical entities, but mind is different. It researches an externally objective physical world. Mind is human only, some bold thinkers attribute mind to other beings if they have a central nervous system, such as other mammals. Ethics deals only with mind-endowed, living beings, which means only humans.

Quantum physics

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg stated his well known uncertainty principle regarding the position and speed of a particle. Heisenberg realised that we cannot know both values simultaneously. If we choose to define one, the other is indefinable, so the observation “chooses” which value to know. The principle is valid also for other couplets, like energy-time: if we want a precise time, a particle has a completely undefinable mass/energy. There is nothing we can pin down in any way. The mind-nature of these entities is perhaps only concealed by mathematical language.

In the 1930s, many debates took place among physic scholars and the “Copenhagen interpretation” emerged. Uncertainty is not a limit of our measurement or our senses, but is a characteristic of the whole world; it is in the nature of the universe. We cannot divide phenomenon and observation, because there is no “objective reality” at all. The Cartesian split between mind and matter is over: we cannot divide them.

Erwin Schroedinger reached the same conclusion as Heisenberg in his Schroedinger equation, which talks about the chance of finding a particle in a defined position. His statement of fuzzy logic enables us to a describe a phenomenon against time. This observation collapses probability into “certainty” — could it be another attempt to make the observer important, centuries after Copernicus revolution? Some view this as a return to anthropocentrism, and the anthropic principle later emerged from this, positing that the universe is “made for mankind.” But a marmot, a mountain or a stream can say the same. Any entity can regard the universe as being made for itself.

The idea of quantum vacuum comes from the uncertainty principle being applied to the energy-time couplet: there is no firm particle or other entity, the only reality is a kind of creative vacuum, an energy dance in which entities are born into being and then vanish. The full-empty dualism disappears. “A” and “not-A” can exist together.

System theory and collective being

At the second half of 20th century, the study of systemics worked out the notions of the complex system and collective being. As a complex system evolves, its evolutionary path becomes completely unexpected after short time. It soon reaches some unstable branching-point, after which it follows a completely different path even for infinitely small differences before that point. This means that we cannot forecast with any chance at a correct prognosis.

We used to say that the system takes one or another way by chance, but we can also say that the system chooses its following way. Mental phenomena emerge in complex systems. (G. Minati, Esseri collettivi, Apogeo, 2001). According to English philosopher-scientist Gregory Bateson, mind emerges from the complexity of a system. Different phenomena behave in different ways, even with the same identical previous evolution. The Earth’s atmosphere is a typical example of a complex system: the forecast of weather is completely impossible beyond a short time due the butterfly effect, the system’s reaction to an unstable branching-point. The emergence of the mind in a system reduces to nonsense the idea that anything could be exactly repeated. A complex system generally has a different story in any case. The “exactly checked conditions” of science have no real meaning.

Coming back to quantum physics, observation itself is the unstable branching-point of the system. The importance of the observer is over (Prigogine). From this point of view, we can say that mind is ever-present in natural phenomena. (Here, mind has not the same meaning of consciousness, as psychoanalysis teaches.) Thus, we are in a natural world formed by mental entities, with no exact border. Human entities are only a part of the whole, thus our ethics must concern the whole of Nature. The idea of other sensing beings comes also from some Eastern philosophies, mostly of Indian origin such as Buddhism and Jainism, where ethics concern all beings and not only humans. The occurrence of mind makes a system worthy of ethical meaning.

Some examples

Some experiments were carried out on social insects (termites). Shielded and with complete isolation from all known fields among termite groups of the same colony, the termites were perfectly able to built a colony with complete precision on each side of the shields, its exact plan not suggested by any energy field. As well, each insect was able to perceive at once any kind of trouble in any part of the colony. The simplest hypothesis is that termites have (or are) a collective mind. Cartesian science ascribes the label of mysticism to any knowledge outside its dogmatic background.

Termites are only one example, there are so many other similar entities, such as a species, a culture, an ecosystem, a society, a cell, a tree, the whole Earth. An ecosystem is a mind-endowed complex system — this is perhaps why we feel emotion in a forest, there is an emotional exchange between ourselves and the forest. Many American native tribes perform a rain dance in an attempt to influence the weather system, sometimes with good results, sometimes not at all. Other living beings — a forest, a swamp, a species — are also mental entities. From a different approach, Jungian author James Hillman wrote about our immersion in the world-soul.

Ethics demand respect for all natural beings. We can now speak about the mind of the total system, the whole biosphere; this is the concept of Gaia (by Lovelock, Margulis, and Sheldrake). We are now very far from the traditional idea of an external man who studies and changes at will a world made by energy-matter. The dualism between the energy-matter world and the mental/psychic/soul world (viewed as an exclusively human property by western culture) is over; the Cartesian chasm has disappeared. We also leave behind the idea that mind is only the output of a central nervous system.

Current thought and official world are still on a “ninetenth century position”, in which the universal is mechanically made by small particles, where mankind only is mind-endowed and worth of ethical regard. The way we have attempted to follow gives us a hope: to find again the spirit of the tree, the swamp or the stream.

About the Author

Guido dalla CasaGuido Dalla Casa is an ecologist and writer who lives in Milan, Italy. An updated edition of his 1996 book Deep Ecology has been published by Arianna Editrice as a 170-page e-book Deep Ecology: Steps To A New Worldview. An abridged English translation of the original can be downloaded as a PDF at Steps To A Deep Ecology.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Bookmark and Share Share This Post


1 Phil Henshaw { 05.08.10 at 6:35 am }


I’ve been developing another way to use physics for studying natural systems, to help point to where in the physical world information is so dense and complex that we need to consider them “information voids”, for the sake of representational science, i.e. structures not possible to represent. What I find is that that is an efficient way to point to the objects of the natural world that are significantly organized and animated from the inside.

I agree with your starting point above, that: “Conventional science remains limited by the philosophical milieu into which it was born three centuries ago, still strictly bound by the Newtonian-Cartesian view of reality. ” I think in the struggles with breaking out of those confines we still find ourselves with a flawed concept of science, which relies on representing nature with one or another kind of information. I think that represents the physical location of the natural world within the reasoning of our own minds… is the problem. We could make a long list of proofs of that, how we treat nature as being as empty of meaning as our own superficial logic, or how we model “progress”, quite universally, as continually doubling the scale of our consumption of anything usable in our own environment.

What do you think of including the idea that science took a path of development that effectively failed to recognize the physical world as its subject as being part of the “problem definition” for making peace with the earth?

2 Guido { 05.11.10 at 6:12 am }


I really think an important way for making peace with the Earth could come from modern science, that’s an accepted way by people. But not by the “official” science, materialistic-mechanistic against any evidence.

I have tried to explain this in my book “Deep Ecology” but it’s in Italian and I didn’t succeed in finding an English-tongue Publisher for a translation.

If in any unstable branching-point a complex system has a choice, that’s meaning that a kind of mind is present. There’s no way at all, nor in a theoretical field, to predict future of the system: he/she is choosing. So mind is not a product of brain or neural cells. If Mind is everywhere, all is ethics-worth, there’s no “inert matter” . All the Complex is Gaia, she’s a Mind-Organism. But official science denies all this questions, despite many ideas born by a branch of science itself.

Our hope is that science changes its path of development as a consequence of last thoughts on quantum physics, system theory and studies on sensing beings (maybe also on cybernetics and artificial minds). Our superficial logic is a forced Cartesian logic, is out of any present knowledge,.. but it’ the official old-path science (that calls itself “truth”).

3 Ecologia e Física « # F í s i c a A m b i e n t a l # { 03.24.12 at 1:51 am }

[…] de Newton aceita o abismo cartesiano sem criticar-lo. Leia mais no artigo de Guido Dalla Casa em Ecologia e Física na Dandelion Times Share this:CompartilharGostar disso:GostoSeja o primeiro a gostar disso […]