Interconnectedness is an idea whose time is coming. Like sustainability, the momentum of history is gathering around it.
What do I mean by interconnectedness, and why is it important? In this issue, we’re using the term to refer to the various ways each of us is part of an on-going exchange of material and information with the world around us. It means recognizing that we – like all of Earth’s life – depend on the same atmosphere and the same water; that we – like all of the physical universe – are inescapably linked at a quantum mechanical level; and even that we are more closely linked mentally than we usually acknowledge.
If we are interconnected in these ways, then our full self extends beyond the boundaries of our skin. In a culture based on a deep understanding of such interconnectedness, individuals would be as loathe to hurt their neighbor, or the ecosystem, as we are now loathe to stub our toe. Behaviors and institutions for the common good that now are maintained through the dubious means of moral persuasion, guilt, and (at times) force would become self-evident and natural. It is just the sort of thing that this suffering planet needs its humans to wake up to.
Philosophically, interconnectedness stands in opposition to separateness – the idea that we are each isolated, sovereign, and self-contained. Since most of the distinctive institutions of western civilization – materialistic science, market economics, our legal system, the Bill of Rights – are based on the assumption that the world is composed of discrete units, the idea of interconnectedness rattles the foundations of our whole society.
It is not surprising, then, that our society has generally denied or ignored evidence for interconnectedness. Nevertheless, that evidence has been growing in many disciplines throughout the 20th century. Moreover, while a world view based on separateness may have served us well in the past, it is flunking the test of this crucial period at the turn of the millennium. Increasingly, many are finding that an interconnected world view has more to offer.
If this momentum keeps building, our society will face a major challenge in coming to grips with this new world view. What shall we do if the “great truth” of separateness fails us? Do we simply abandon it, or do we look for a larger truth that can encompass the remaining value of separateness while transcending its limitations?
An example of moving to a larger truth while retaining useful elements of the old can be found in the transition, in the beginning of the 20th century, from Newtonian physics to quantum and relativistic physics. Although it became clear that Newtonian physics does not provide an accurate view of reality, its tools continue to function as a useful approximation for many activities, such as building bridges.
This transition also provides an especially helpful metaphor in the way it changed our ideas about “particle” and “wave.”
THE PARTICLE-WAVE METAPHOR
In Newtonian physics, particles – like billiard balls – were seen as hard, individual objects, specific to a particular space and time. On the other hand waves – such as ocean waves or sound waves – were spread through space and time, blending and interpenetrating with each other. The two, particles and waves, were seen as completely different concepts.
This common-sense notion got turned on it head by quantum physics, which developed at the beginning of this century to account for the behavior of atoms and light. What was found then – and has since been confirmed by almost a century’s worth of experimentation – is that the basic building blocks of the physical world (such as atoms, electrons, protons, light) behave in some situations like waves and in other situations like particles. The inescapable result is that in some mysterious way, they are both.
Might we humans also, in some mysterious way, have both particle-like individuality and a wave-like shared beingness and interconnectedness? Western cultures have emphasized the particle-like side; other cultures have emphasized the wave-like side. The appropriate synthesis may encompasses both.
To explore this synthesis, those of us from the West first need to stretch our ability to understand our more wave-like, interconnected qualities. The goal in doing so is not to swing the pendulum; rather it is to broaden our understanding to a broader, more encompassing, and hopefully more mature level of self knowledge.
HOW INTERCONNECTED ARE WE?
To help with this exploration, I’d like to briefly review a few of the more philosophically significant ways that, according to the best scientific evidence available, we are interconnected both at a physical level and at the level of consciousness.
The Physics Of Interconnectedness * As a former astrophysicist, I can’t resist beginning with the big picture. One of the most remarkable things astronomers have found as they have looked ever farther out in space (and thus also further back in time) is that the laws of physics that apply here on earth also apply, as far as we can tell, everywhere else we have looked. There is no “diversity of physics” across the universe in the way that there is a diversity of human cultures around the world.
In the micro-world of quantum physics, the most dramatic demonstration of interconnectedness is described by Bell’s theorem. In 1964, John Bell showed that quantum theory predicted that any two particles that originated from a single source (such as two electrons born out of an energetic collision), would later behave as if they maintained some kind of on-going non-local connection. This connection can be revealed by measuring some property of each particle, such as the spin of each electron. It is instantaneous and unaffected by time or distance. According to Bell, these measurements should be more highly correlated than if the two particles were truly separate. Many experiments have now confirmed Bell’s prediction.
The implications of this are profound, since all matter comes from essentially a single source – the Big Bang. Thus Bell’s theorem implies, at a quantum level, that the physical world is an inseparable whole. The old Newtonian idea that world is made up of separate objects that occasionally collide, but otherwise lead independent existences, turns out to be only a convenient approximation, applicable in only some situations.
The Interconnection of Consciousness * The physical interconnectedness I’ve just been describing has two characteristics: it’s based on widely accepted science and it doesn’t touch our core sense of individuality. When we look at interconnectedness at the level of consciousness, both these characteristics change.
For many decades parapsychologists have studied the various ways that one person’s mind might influence another person’s mind, or influence physical objects or events, without the aid of normal communications. Most of these studies have concluded that there is some form of interconnection, but because of the profound philosophical and social implications of this result, the overall scientific community has resisted accepting the conclusions of these studies.
In response, the parapsychologists have kept refining their experiments and accumulating evidence that is harder and harder to refute. My own sense is that if this were any other topic, the available scientific evidence would have settled the question by now.
What is that evidence? One standard experimental setup involves placing two people, a “sender” and a “receiver,” in two separate rooms, where each room is shielded for sound, light, and electro-magnetic radiation. Once placed in these rooms, the sender then focuses his or her attention on a randomly selected item, and the receiver, in some way, responds. The experiments are designed to measure and test the accuracy of these responses, looking to see if they could be explained purely by chance.
A good example is reported by Honorton et al. in the June 1990 issue of the Journal of Parapsychology . In their experiment, the sender views a randomly selected picture (either moving or still), and the receiver then chooses, among four pictures (the one viewed by the sender plus three randomly selected decoys), the one that most closely matches what the receiver sensed.
This experiment incorporates an important procedure. The receiver is put into a state of mild sensory deprivation, called ganzfeld, through reclining comfortably, listening to white noise, and viewing, through translucent eye covers, a uniform red light. This procedure generally induces drowsiness, vivid imagery, and a sense of disconnection from the immediate sensory environment. These characteristics have been found to improve the sensitivity of the receiver.
The full experimental series involved 241 participants in 355 sessions. The overall success rate was 34 percent, significantly better than the 25 percent that would result by chance. The success rate for moving images alone was even higher, at 40 percent.
These results are typical of well-done experiments of this type in that they show 1) a statistically significant positive result (suggesting there is a real phenomenon), and 2) a success rate that is far from 100 percent (suggesting the receiver is influenced by more than the sender).
Another similar series of experiments has tested the ability of the sender to affect the physiological activity of the receiver – biofeedback at a distance – thus bypassing the need for reportage or interpretation by the receiver. For example, the receiver’s blood pressure is automatically recorded during a 20-minute session. At randomly selected times during that period, the sender attempts to raise (or lower) the receiver’s blood pressure, while at other times avoiding any such attempt. The results are positive and statistically significant at a level similar to those for the imagery experiment described above.
Can we also, through conscious intention, affect physical objects? Here again, the answer appears to be yes. The best experimental studies involve effects on otherwise random events. A typical setup has a human sender attempt to influence the output of an electronic random number generator. The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory at Princeton University has been doing experiments of this type for more than a decade. Their procedure has the sender alternate between attempting to get the random number generator to give a higher-than-chance result, a lower-than-chance result, and then not influencing the machine at all. The resulting deviations are small, less than 1 percent on average, but still statistically significant. These positive results are unaffected by the construction details of the random number generator or by the distance between the sender and the machine, up to thousands of miles.
Are these results genuine? The best that one can say about any set of experiments is that they are well-designed by current standards and that others have replicated their results. The Princeton experiments pass both of these tests.
Taken together with many other well-done experiments, all these results strongly suggest that as humans:
- We can mentally influence – and are influenced by – the thoughts of others.
- We can mentally influence biological processes in bodies other than our own.
- We can mentally influence the functioning of non-biological systems.
How do we do it? There are dozens of rival explanations, some modern and some thousands of years old, but as yet there is no generally established theory, even among parapsychologists.One thing is getting clearer, however. Certain psychological conditions are more conducive than others to gaining access to this kind of interconnection, as the use of the ganzfeld procedure described above suggests. William Braud, the parapsychologist who did the blood-pressure experiment, describes the five simple yet powerful mental techniques that he has found to be most effective as follows: relaxation and quietude; focused attention; imagery and visualization; confident yet effortless intentionality; and self-evoked positive emotions.
WHY DO WE DENY OUR INTERCONNECTEDNESS?
The suggestion that we are mentally interconnected in these ways raises passionate objections from many in the sciences, and from many others as well. If the experimental results are accurate, these objections will eventually need to be addressed. Even if the results are not accurate, the passion of the objections provides an interesting window on our culture’s attachment to individualism and separateness. In either case, we have a lot to learn from exploring the roots of these objections.
To understand these roots, I find it helpful to go back to the cultural context surrounding the birth of western natural science in the 17th century. In the previous centuries, the simple world of the Middle Ages was progressively being replaced by a more diverse and contentious world. The Crusades (11th to 14th centuries) and the Age of Exploration (15th and 16th centuries) had opened Europe to a larger world and brought it into violent conflict with other religions. The Black Death (14th century), in which perhaps as much as half of the population of Europe died, had shaken popular faith and traumatized the society. The Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition, started in the 13th century and still in full swing during the 17th century, was responsible for the death of millions accused of heresy and witchcraft. The Renaissance (14th to 16th centuries) had raised the level of education, reintroduced Greek and Roman literature to Europe, and encouraged individual expression and achievement – further threatening the status quo. The Reformation (16th century) broke the monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church and increased concerns about heresy.
In this context, there were those who wanted to develop science out of the more wholistic and organic worldview of the earlier Middle Ages, but they lost out to those like Francis Bacon (who lived from 1561 to 1626) and René Descartes (1596 to 1650) who argued for a mechanistic and atomized approach. The mechanistic approach had two significant advantages:
- It simplified the development of practical results. More than anyone could have initially imagined, there were a vast number of practical problems that could be addressed with this strategy. Newton’s (1643 to 1727) formulation of general laws of motion and gravitation within this mechanistic framework cemented it success.
- It minimized, as much as possible, any spiritual implications and was thus best able to avoid persecution for heresy. Not that these early scientist avoided persecution entirely, but they survived much better than their competitors with a more mystical bent.
The dangerous and often bitter struggle of these early scientists with the Church and with other philosophic schools left a profound impact on their successors. To this day, even though the historical justifications are long gone, those who enter the sub-culture of science soon learn that nothing is so damaging to one’s credibility as the accusation that one is interpreting phenomena in anything other than mechanistic terms, especially in any way that might be construed as giving consciousness a significant role in the dynamics of the natural world. Quantum physics has forced some physicists to break with this taboo, but most of those in the biological, psychological, and social sciences still keep the faith.There are a number of additional reasons why many people – not only those from the sciences – resist the idea that our minds might have the capabilities described above:
- There is a long and well-publicized history of people using the claim of these capabilities in manipulative and fraudulent ways (including those claiming to be mind readers, channelers, spiritual teachers, and others). This guilt by association produces understandable reluctance to be taken in. The irony is that discouraging legitimate research and development of these capabilities makes these phenomena more easily subject to abuse.
- Accepting these capabilities would entail accepting such things as imagery and intuition as valid channels for information about the larger world. In effect, we would be adding the mind as a legitimate sense along side vision, hearing, etc. Since knowledge is power, and since people vary considerably in their current facility for using the mind in this way, such an acceptance would significantly rearrange the power relationship throughout the society.
- The personality skills that are helpful in developing these capabilities (quietude, visualization, confident yet effortless intentionality, etc.) run counter to the skills (striving, verbal and analytic thinking, etc.) that our society encourages as the route to success. Those who have invested heavily in the traditional route, and perhaps along the way learned to suppress the other skills, are understandably loathe to see the primacy of their strengths challenged.
- Wrapped up in all this are issues of gender relations. Regardless of how accurate the associations may be, our culture has for centuries described the more effortful, analytic, and mechanical approach as masculine, and the more intuitive, receptive, and organic approach as feminine. Any affirmation of the value of the more “feminine” approach would have reverberations throughout the culture.
- These capabilities raise concerns about the loss of privacy and even identity in a world where minds are open to each other. Many feel it is better to keep the social contract that denies this openness – even if it is real – than to face it directly.
- Even those who accept these phenomena as real may – in light of what has happened with modern technology – fear that intentional development of these capabilities could lead to more harm than good.
Looking over this list of objections, I’m struck by the way that some of the most powerful resistance to an even-handed assessment of our interconnectedness has been weakened by on-going cultural trends:
- The authority of materialist science has been diminished by such things as the pervasive environmental damage and the threats from toxics and radioactivity that the public associates with this kind of science.
- Mental skills like intuition and visualization are increasingly seen as useful and legitimate, even within business settings.
- Anti-feminine attitudes are now more quickly recognized as such, and the social support for them has been considerably diminished.
The combination of these trends with the steady improvement in the quality and breadth of empirical evidence for interconnectedness is what leads me to say that the momentum of history is gathering toward a major shift in public and official attitudes towards all the aspects of interconnectedness described above. Of course, history is full of surprises, and something may happen to change these trends, but if they keep going as they have been for the past few decades, I would expect this shift in attitude to become apparent in this decade, perhaps even in the next few years, just as the shift in attitude towards issues of sustainability has become apparent in the past four years.
Many will simply cheer such a shift. I share some of that sentiment, yet my reaction is more complex, for I share or sympathize with some of the concerns listed above as well. If this shift is to be as graceful and positive as possible, these concerns need to be addressed, and, given the momentum building towards this shift, it is none too soon to start actively addressing them.
Here is what I propose:
- Woven through many of these concerns is a sense of conflict between the concepts of interconnectedness and individuality (and especially between the proponents of these two!). Yet in practice they function much more as complements. The particle-wave metaphor can be fruitfully used to emphasize this complementarity.
- Underlying many of these concerns is a simple fear of the unknown. We need to familiarize ourselves with the reality of interconnectedness, rather than reacting to its caricatures. Among other things, this means 1) raising our awareness of our physical and biological interconnectedness (see “Common As Dirt” and “Microbal Microcosm”), 2) learning how cultures that are much more comfortable with interconnectedness have dealt with those things that concern us (see “World As Lover; World As Self” and “Remembering Our Purpose”), and 3) learning from those pioneers of interconnectedness within our own culture who are working on a balanced integration of it in their own lives (see pages “Between Order and Chaos” and “The Song”).
- There are ways in which concerns about the kind of interconnectedness described here are, in effect, stand-ins for concerns about maintaining our own identity and dignity. Our fears around identity and dignity fuel conflicts between religions, cultures, ethnic groups, and the genders. Easing these conflicts will have the additional benefit of making it easier to deal with interconnectedness in a balanced way (see “A Chance for Peace”, “Essential Peacemaking, Women and Men”, “Planetary Networking for Kids”, “Hip-Hoppers & Do-Gooders”, and “Sharing Strength”).
- We need to begin the work of reframing our sense of self so that it
can be more inclusive without losing the values of particulate individuality
(see “Awakening the Ecological Unconscious“).
- Braud, William G. “Human Interconnectedness: Research Indications.”
ReVision, Winter 1992: 140-148.
- Harman, Willis W. A Re-examination of the Metaphysical Foundations
of Modern Science. Sausalitio: Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1991.
- Honorton, Charles, et. al. “Psi Communications In The Ganzfeld.”
Journal of Parapsychology, June 1990: 99-137.
- Peet, F. David. Einstein’s Moon: Bell’s Theorem and the Curious
Quest for Quantum Reality. Chicago: Contemporary Book, 1990.
- Rubic, Beverly, ed. The Interrelationship Between Mind and Matter.
Philadelphia: Temple University, 1992.