Theosophy and the Systems View of Life

David Pratt

While mechanistic science concentrates on reducing things to basic material building blocks, the emerging holistic paradigm recognizes that systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller units. The two fundamental themes of this systems view of life are the universal interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena, and the intrinsically dynamic nature of reality. Such ideas appear to harmonize with theosophy, but a deeper analysis of systems theory, as summarized in Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point [1], reveals several fundamental differences.

Systems theory accepts neither the traditional scientific view of evolution as a game of dice, nor the western religious view of an ordered universe designed by a divine creator. Evolution is presented as basically open and indeterminate, without goal or purpose, yet with a recognizable pattern of development. Chance fluctuations supposedly take place, causing a system at a certain moment to become unstable. As it 'approaches the critical point, it "decides" itself which way to go, and this decision will determine its evolution' [2]. Capra sees the evolutionary process not as a product of blind chance but as an unfolding of order and complexity analogous to a learning process, including both independence from the environment and freedom of choice. However, he fails to explain how supposedly inert matter is able to 'decide', 'choose', and 'learn'. This belief that evolution is purposeless and haphazard and yet shows a recognizable pattern is similar to biologist Lyall Watson's belief that evolution is governed by chance but that chance has 'a pattern and a reason of its own' [3]. In other words, Watson redefines chance to make it virtually synonymous with intelligence!

Capra enumerates two principal phenomena of self-organization: self-renewal, 'the ability of living systems continuously to renew and recycle their components while maintaining the integrity of their overall structures'; and self-transcendence, 'the ability to reach out creatively beyond its physical and mental boundaries in the processes of learning, development, and evolution' [4]. He argues that adaptation of species through genetic mutation (genotypic change) is only one side of evolution. The other is creativity: the development of new structures and functions of ever increasing complexity, independent of environmental pressure, as a manifestation of the potential for self-transcendence inherent in all organisms.

While Capra holds that self-transformation and self-transcendence are a fundamental feature of the universe, he confesses that they are not amenable to further explanation at this time. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that they are not amenable to a materialistic explanation, whether of the reductionist or holistic variety. Capra provides a clue to a possible explanation when he refers to the concept of stratified order and multileveled systems, saying that 'at each level of complexity we encounter systems that are integrated, self-organizing wholes consisting of smaller parts and, at the same time, acting as parts of larger wholes'; 'order at one systems level is the consequence of self-organization at a larger level' [5].

The crucial question is whether this applies only to systems within the physical universe, or whether the physical world is also influenced by superior worlds composed of energy-substances of a different rate of vibration. Are physical matter and its operations sufficient to explain life, the pervasiveness of order, thought and will, creativity and intuition, mystic states of consciousness, and a whole range of well-authenticated parapsychological phenomena? Or is it necessary to postulate the existence of subtler forces and energies beyond the physical world?

Dr. William Tiller, a renowned crystallographer at Stanford, after studying the evidence for ESP and life-fields, concluded that we are dealing with energy fields completely different from those known through conventional science. He argues that 'the universe seems to organize and radiate information in other dimensions than just the physical space-time frame', and that 'at some level we are all interconnected to each other and to all things on this planet'. According to theosophy there are higher or inner planes or spheres, invisible to our physical senses, which interpenetrate and interact with our own level of reality. The physical universe is not so much self-organizing as guided by inner worlds; the universe is worked and guided from within outwards.

Capra speaks of cosmic mind, which he defines as the self-organizing dynamics of the entire cosmos. But this is a rather strange use of the word mind, which normally implies not only self-regulation but also thought, will, feeling, memory, etc. Elsewhere he states that it is more accurate to regard self-organization as a mental process rather than as mind itself. But if it is granted that a mental process implies a mind, and that mind cannot be reduced to an effect of physical matter, then there is nothing unreasonable in the view that such processes are the automatic workings on the physical plane of a universal mind, rooted in superior worlds.

Theosophy regards the material universe as the outer garment of the universal mind. The laws of nature are expressions of the wills and energies of higher beings or spiritual intelligences which in their aggregate make up the universal mind. It is mind and intelligence which give rise to the order and harmony of the physical universe, and not the patterns of chance, or the decisions of self-organizing matter. Like Capra, the theosophical philosophy rejects the traditional theological idea of a supernatural, extracosmic divine Creator. It would also question Capra's notion that God is the self-organizing dynamics of the physical universe. But it firmly believes in the existence of innumerable superhuman, intracosmic intelligences (or gods), which have already passed through the human stage in past evolutionary cycles, and to which status we shall ourselves one day attain.

There are two opposing views of consciousness: the western scientific view which considers matter as primary and consciousness as a byproduct of complex material patterns associated with a certain stage of biological evolution; and the mystical view which sees consciousness as the primary reality and ground of all being. Systems theory accepts the conventional materialist view that consciousness is a manifestation of living systems of a certain complexity, although the biological structures themselves are expressions of 'underlying processes that represent the system's self-organization, and hence its mind. In this sense material structures are no longer considered the primary reality.' [7] This stance reaffirms the dualistic view of mind and matter. Capra clearly believes that matter is primary in the sense that the physical world comes first and life, mind, and consciousness emerge at a later stage. That he chooses to call the self-organizing dynamics of the universe by the name 'mind' is beside the point. If consciousness is regarded as the underlying reality, it is impossible to regard it also as a property of matter which emerges at a certain stage of evolution.

While the materialistic and mystical views of mind seem incompatible and irreconcilable, mind/matter dualism may be resolved by seeing spirit and matter as fundamentally one, as different grades of consciousness-life-substance. Science already holds that physical matter and energy are interconvertible, that matter is concentrated energy, and theosophy adds that consciousness is the highest and subtlest form of energy. In this view, there is no absolutely dead and unconscious matter in the universe. Everything is a living, evolving, conscious entity, and every entity is composite, consisting of bundles of forces and substances pertaining to different planes, from the astral-physical through the psychomental to divine-spiritual.

Obviously the degree of manifested life and consciousness varies widely from one entity to another, but at the heart of every entity is an indwelling spiritual atom or consciousness-center at a particular stage of its evolutionary unfoldment. More complex material forms do not create consciousness, but merely provide a more developed vehicle through which this spiritual monad can express its powers and faculties. Evolution is far from being purposeless and indeterminate: our human monads issued from the divine Source aeons ago as unselfconscious god-sparks and, by taking embodiment and garnering experience in all the kingdoms of nature, we will eventually raise ourselves to the status of selfconscious gods.

Thus although systems theory begins to move beyond the old mechanistic theory of evolution, it still remains wedded to several basic materialistic dogmas. While materialists believe that the physical world is the primary reality and that life and consciousness are the products of physical matter, theosophy proposes that the material world is the outer shell of superior worlds, and that the ultimate reality is infinite life and consciousness.


  1. Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point, Simon & Schuster, 1982.
  2. Ibid., p. 288.
  3. Supernature II, Sceptre, 1987, p. 24.
  4. The Turning Point, p. 269.
  5. Ibid., p. 303.
  6. 'New fields, new laws', Future Science, John White & S. Krippner (eds.), Doubleday, 1977, p. 60.
  7. The Turning Point, p. 297.

November 1997. Original article published in Sunrise, April/May 1991.