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What Matters Most

by Fritjof Capra and E.F. Schumacher


"We have to be very careful to avoid head-on confrontation," said radical economist E. F. Schumacher to the startled author of The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra. "I don't believe at all that physics can help us in solving our problems today." On reading these words at the opening of Capra's fascinating account of his meeting with Schumacher, one is likely to be as startled as he. Capra had come to Schumacher expecting to receive confirmation of his efforts to bring together science and spirituality. Both men were outspoken critics of the mechanistic worldview of modern science, and both were well known as pioneers of a new paradigm that is less materialistic and emphasizes spiritual and ecological values. Instead, Capra came face to face with a man who challenged his life's work without a moment of hesitation.

Fritjof Capra had risked his career as a theoretical physicist to embark on an investigation of a comprehensive paradigm shift that he saw emerging from the paradoxical findings of modern physics. His first book, The Tao of Physics, was one of the first to draw parallels between quantum physics and Eastern spiritual philosophy. His subsequent books further elaborate his view that the most advanced scientific theories of our day can support the cultural transformation that our world so desperately needs.

Most students of economics or ecology are familiar with the late E. F. Schumacher through his groundbreaking book Small Is Beautiful, which gained him an international reputation as an innovative economist and forefather of the modern ecology movement. A forward-thinking visionary, Schumacher began addressing the environmental and social implications of unchecked technological development and material consumption in the 1950s, well before most others began seriously considering these issues.

We came across Capra's dialogue with Schumacher at the beginning of our research for this issue of What Is Enlightenment?. Fascinated by the strength of their disagreement and deeply moved by Schumacher's urgent plea to restore the values of quality and meaning to an increasingly nihilistic world, we read his book A Guide for the Perplexed, in which he elaborates his philosophy with unusual simplicity and conscience. Schumacher's Guide resonates with profound common sense and passionately calls the reader to engage the noble struggle to go beyond being "merely human." He proclaims that science, even in light of recent theories which embrace a more holistic worldview, will never be able to engender a truly significant paradigm shift because, in the end, it can only represent a perspective that is fundamentally materialistic.

Fritjof Capra's dialogue with E. F. Schumacher launched us into the far-reaching exploration of the relationship between science and spirituality that appears on the pages of this issue. It has indeed been a thrilling journey, bringing us into contact with some of the most creative and brilliant minds of our era. In the end, however, all of our inquiry has brought us back to the refreshing simplicity of E. F. Schumacher. The conviction behind Schumacher's words is that of a deeply spiritual person whose vision reaches right into the heart of what it means to be a human being. His insistence that we not forget "what matters most" echoes in one's mind long after one has put down his book.

The following two articles illuminate a fascinating debate at the edge of the new paradigm. The first, Fritjof Capra's engaging account of his meeting with Schumacher in 1977, excerpted from his book Uncommon Wisdom, illustrates how two bold critics of the classical scientific worldview—both of them ardent proponents of a new vision for humankind—can differ so fundamentally about how to approach the way ahead. The second, excerpted from A Guide for the Perplexed, is E. F. Schumacher's powerfully compelling reckoning with the loss of meaning and value in the wake of the scientific revolution.

–Susan Bridle


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This article is from
Our Science Issue