Tags

, ,

“Uncommon Wisdom,” by Fritjof Capra, is a meta-book. It’s a book about the process of writing a book. Capra had previously written “The Tao of Physics,” a groundbreaking conflation of physical and metaphysical study and belief.

Capra’s great insight, as explained by Capra, is that science is too hard. In science, you need to develop theories and models (which is fine), but then science requires you to test your ideas, and discard those which prove false or fail to allow prediction of future events. He appropriates something called the “Bootstrap Model” of physics, created by Geoffrey Chew in response to the insurmountable complexity of quantum theory. In Capra’s Bootstrap World, all you need to do is tell stories. If your stories seem true, and they don’t contradict other true-ish stories, then eventually we’ll have enough stories surrounding the truth that the truth will be unable to hide and will reveal itself.

“Uncommon Wisdom” is a collection of discussions and dialogs Capra had with great thinkers to collect their stories, winnow away the parts that disagree with Capra’s (evolving) great story, and then collect the great story into a new book (called “The Turning Point”). “Great Thinkers” are almost exclusively people who agree with Capra.

The book was published in the late 1980s, but most of the discussions happened in the early to mid 1970s. Many of the discussions occurred while drunk, high on pot, or high on LSD. It’s very apparent that the discussions have been reconstructed from … who knows what, and that their content is highly paraphrased and/or completely fabricated. There is also a strong smell of plagiarism, but it may very well be plagiarism with permission (appropriation, I suppose). A final dialog, reproduced from actual tape recordings made at the end of the process, reveals that many, if not most, of the “Great Thinkers” involved are uncomfortable with Capra’s overall thesis.

I am unable to adequately summarize Capra’s thesis, myself. It has to do with the one-ness of entirety. The indescribable complexity of the gestalt. The necessity to consider all possibilities before attempting to understand any process. Most importantly, Capra requires the suspension of belief. Evaluation of a concept is inappropriate unless you consider all interactions, and since there are infinite interactions, you must never evaluate concepts. Except as stories, except as metaphors, except as compared to Capra’s evolving narrative. It’s infuriating.

False and broken syllogisms fill the book:

  • Bad things were done, mostly by men, so men are bad.

  • Most of the bad things that have been done weren’t done by women, so women are good.

  • A concept is not universal, so the concept is untrue.

  • Sick people sometimes exploit their sickness to obtain sympathy (or money, or attention, or distraction), so sick people are sick because they want to be sick.

  • Businesses profit and survive by filling a need, so businesses (by definition) exploit the needy.

  • You think of new and weird stuff when you’re on LSD, so LSD is a good source of new ideas, even if the new ideas only make sense when you’re on LSD (write drunk, edit sober comes to mind, but Capra fails to make that point) (not Hemmingway, definitely not Hemmingway).

  • Old cultures had shamans instead of doctors and scientists, and old cultures didn’t have modern problems, so shamans must be better than doctors and scientists.

  • (The big one). If two stories don’t agree, then at least one of them is false, but if two stories agree, both are probably mostly true (Head explodes).

Capra is/was a great storyteller (edit: Capra is apparently still spouting from Berkeley, Cali. Shocker.). He’s glib. The stories have been well curated. The book is entertaining to read and contains hundreds of original ideas (for instance: Social Activism is often a form of self-treatment for an emotional disorder, and once the disorder has been worked through, the activism often stops. In other works, people act out when they feel ineffective and stop acting out once they learn more effective methods. Imagine where this leads) and probably mostly true insight into the thought process Capra and his minions follow to arrive at their dubious conclusions. But when I apply Capra’s own filter and analyze the book as a whole, Capra is evil. Science is viewed as false, dishonest, and/or (gasp) political, not as a search for testable truths through the ruthless search for and application of facts. Narrative is more important than results. Glibness is better than competence.

I’m a big, big fan of quackery – the application of theory (even wild or bird-brained theory) in the the absence of a scientifically-chosen plan of action. If you have a non-curable cancer, by all means eat handfuls of carrot seeds and spend four hours a day balancing on your head. But don’t pursue quackery to the exclusion of science. Capra doesn’t just advocate quackery, he seeks to discredit the scientific process. He promotes his viewpoint as a flawless method to search for truth, but that’s only because he rejects instead of solicits criticism. Being wrong is fundamentally disallowed from the start, in his approach, and he actively and openly rejects dissenting viewpoints, without taking the opportunity to use the dissent as a tool to find truth.

Unfortunately, Capra’s approach is all to common in our “modern” society. Wanting something to be true is enough. Expressing dissent, or even making declarative statements implying that there is truth, is considered rude.

I really hate this book and what it stands for, and I recommend you read it. It explains a lot, I fear.

Advertisements