Ervin Laszlo was a child prodigy at the piano who became a professor without finishing school. The former systems theory pioneer is now concentrating on research into the information field, which should not only shed light on inexplicable connections between man and matter, but may help create a new paradigm that will make the world a better place. “It’s my job to supply the proof,” he declares. Jurriaan Kamp spoke at length with this groundbreaking scientist who is pursuing his own life questions.
It’s early on a winter evening and a dozen scholars are gathered in a room at the University of Stuttgart. Outside, the snow crunches under the feet of passers-by. Inside there are sandwiches and wine on the table. The discussion is about the creation of the universe. About where the big bang came from. About everything.
A German physicist has been shifting in his seat for some time. Then he senses an opening and turns towards the speaker. “Professor Laszlo,” he begins, “you are speaking of phenomena that point to cohesion, to connection in the universe. But what we are actually observing is the separation of objects and organisms in the universe. Our ability to separate things has led to development and progress. There, for instance, are specialists working at this university who are experts in individual fields of study. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in your story about connection, but it’s based on hope.”
Professor Laszlo leans back with a friendly chuckle. Hope? A scientist cannot be any more deeply insulted. A theory is supposed to rest on observation and facts, not on hope.
Ervin Laszlo, 71, has listened attentively. There is no indication that the attack has upset him. He chooses his words carefully and calmly in replying to the physicist. “I am not arguing that separatism doesn’t exist in the universe. Your point is clear. I am presenting the aspect of connection as a complement. There are phenomena that can only be explained by the existence of an information field that connects elements in the universe. There is, for example, no explanation within accepted physics theory for what we nonetheless observe: that small elementary particles – quanta – that were connected, remain connected when they have drifted far apart after a separation. I only ask that you take my theory seriously.”
The scholars play around with Laszlo’s vision that alongside the known, observable phenomena of matter and energy, the universe also contains an unobservable ‘information’ element. And that the presence of this information element explains why there’s sometimes such a remarkable coherence in the universe. And that this vision of the ‘informed universe’ offers explanations for phenomena that cannot be explained within the accepted laws of physics. Laszlo’s theory of ‘information field’ – which he also presents in his book Cosmic Vision: The Dawn of the Integral Theory of Everything – fits in with what others call the Zero Point Field (see also Ode, November 2003).
It’s not easy to defend the existence of an essentially intangible element in the universe to a group of physicists who grew up with the premise that everything can be tested and measured. And yet that night in Stuttgart the pioneer of this burgeoning new vision on evolution and the universe easily stands his ground. Not so surprising, one might say, for someone who over the past 40 years has written some 70 books about the development of systems theory and physics.
And yet it is surprising, too, because Laszlo is not a trained physicist. He is the prototype of the self-taught man. He learned to play the piano early on from his mother, who had become a piano teacher because her dream of becoming a concert pianist had not panned out. As is often the case, the son fulfils his mother’s wish: Laszlo became a child prodigy. In 1948, when Laszlo was 15, an invitation to a recital in New York is the excuse the Laszlo family needs to travel from Hungary to the United States. As the owner of a shoe factory, Laszlo’s father was wary of the approaching communist takeover. Ervin Laszlo spent years performing as a soloist with orchestras in every state in the U.S. – “except Arkansas,” he adds, as we enjoy lunch together with his wife in his temporary apartment in Stuttgart where he is staying for a series of guest lectures.
There was no room for a normal school life in his youth, alongside the many concerts. Laszlo’s performances were lauded in Time, Newsweek and The New York Times.
Which doesn’t mean that he wasn’t exploring subjects besides music. During the long hours he spent practising at the piano, the same questions arose that many people ponder: where do we come from? How was the universe created? What is the purpose of our existence? Laszlo decided to tackle the challenge of these difficult questions and starts writing down his thoughts in a journal. “It was my quest for meaning,” he notes. And that quest was the start of a crucial twist in the course of his life.
Then, during a banquet after a concert in The Hague in 1961, he struck up a conversation with someone at his table about those same questions. And Laszlo mentioned, “Sometimes I write about this. I would like to let you read it.” He went back to his hotel room and returned with his notes, which he showed to the man. And when the banquet was over Laszlo realised he’s lost sight of the man and his notes. Laszlo remembers: “I thought, what a shame about my work. I went to sleep with the thought that I would have to rewrite everything.”
But the next morning at breakfast the man returned. With his journal. “Mr. Laszlo,” he began, “my name is Priem and I am a philosophy editor with the Martinus Nijhoff publishing company. I would very much like to publish your book.”
“My book?” Laszlo still sounds surprised, over 40 years later. “I didn’t think I was a scientist, I was a pianist.”
The book Essential Society was published in 1963, and faculty at University of Fribourg in Swizerland came across it. The university invited Laszlo – the man who never graduated from secondary school – to come give guest lectures on evolutionary thinking. For quite awhile Laszlo combined his musical career with giving talks about his new love of science. “I enjoyed lecturing. I was good at it because I talked about my own life questions and not about the theories of others.”
Then when invited to the U.S. to teach at Yale University, Laszlo, at age 34, faced a choice. “I was used to giving my thoughts free rein while at the piano. Of course when I gave a concert I had to fully concentrate on my playing. But once during a Beethoven recital I noticed that I had been so deep in thought that I no longer knew whether I had already played a certain refrain or not. I don’t know whether the public noticed my confusion, but at that moment I took a decision: I would stop playing piano and fully dedicate myself to science.”
He became a Visiting Fellow at the Department ofPhilosophy at Yale without any official degree. Honourable, but not exactly the qualification for a successful career in science. He was invited to present a thesis for the “Doctorat-ès Lettres et Sciences Humaines” at the Sorbonne in Paris, the highest state doctorat for which a prior doctorat is needed as qualification. He got that doctorat on an honorary basis, so finally he got an academic diploma (his only official one, although he has received four honorary doctorates). And Ervin Laszlo became a full professor in philosophy.
For Laszlo, science is not an aim in itself, just a logical vocation for his curiosity. “I have the drive to want to understand things. I am motivated to find out. That actually applies to everything, but I leave some areas aside because I don’t have the time. For me, any day without a new idea is a day lost.”
In the 1970s his interest initially led him into what would later be called systems theory: examination of whether the laws that apply to the development of biological systems, also apply to the development of society. Systems theory put Laszlo on the path of his current work. “I couldn’t explain why systems can develop so coherently and consistently if they aren’t somehow connected. That insight brought me to the theory of the information field. It is the most reasonable way we can go, based on the evidence we have.”
Evidence continues to come forward. Technological advances enable man to more deeply explore the smallest matter while, at the same time, penetrating more deeply into the universe. Laszlo offers, “Reality offers the proof of connection – even if we can’t explain it.”
Einstein was stumped by the behaviour of quantum particles a century ago. Recent discoveries point to a cohesion in the universe that is hardly imaginable, resulting from random evolutionary development. But researchers have also proven that 98% of the atoms in the human body are replaced each year, and yet that body continues to maintain its particular unique and recognisable form. New research into the field of consciousness also brings phenomena to light that don’t fit in with established scientific theories. Mothers and children, long-term lovers and even close friends appear to be capable of telepathic communication – just as some people from so-called primitive peoples demonstrate the ability to maintain contact even when they cannot see or hear each other. Several studies also show that praying for someone helps them to heal faster and better.
“Many current scientific discoveries cannot be perceived by the senses,” Laszlo explains. “Signs of a new scientific vision can also be found in the shape of questions for which the answers remain unknown. New theories always arise based on matters for which there is no explanation. Using generally accepted scientific theories of the last century we cannot explain how certain things are connected, simultaneously and continually; connected in space and time.
“If there are indications that things influence each other at a distance, and in time, then the logical instinct and the logical assumption is that they are connected in some way or another. The simplest hypothesis is that of a field. A field is something that we don’t observe as such; we only observe the effects. In a field, a movement or change in one piece immediately leads to a movement or change in the other parts.
“This field carries no energy in the usual sense of the term, because none of the possible methods of energy measurement yield results,” he continues. “It carries information. But not abstract information, knowledge that’s only in our head. This information has effect. The physicist David Bohm spoke of ‘in-formation’ – the information forms the receiver. This doesn’t happen through kinetic energy, i.e. by pushing or pulling, but through the message. The message itself forms. The new element in science is that active and subtle information is the foundation of the universe and all of life’s phenomena.”
The idea that something that’s happening somewhere is available as information everywhere else and that something that once happened will always continue to happen, fills crucial gaps in established physics theory. “Nothing disappears completely,” Laszlo remarks. “There is nothing in the universe that only happens once and then disappears without a trace. Everything that happens, creates information. And all that created information influences everything that happens afterwards. This is how the universe continues building on itself. We know that happens in our bodies, that it happens in society and that it also plays a role in nature. I believe that this is a fundamentally new way of looking at the universe, like a self-maintaining, self-evolving, self-informing system.”
He is speaking of a new paradigm, a hypothesis that explains everything that established theory already explains along with the things that that theory cannot explain. “If you can formulate such a theory, you can start behaving as if it’s the truth. This way you can test the new vision.”
Laszlo compared the information field with the electromagnetic field, which was always present in the universe, but was only discovered in the 19th century by Michael Faraday. Before then, various scientists had predicted the existence of the field, but they didn’t succeed in proving its existence. “You couldn’t touch it – so it didn’t exist,” Laszlo points out. “ And now we use it every day with radio, television, satellites and mobile telephones. But we also continually use that other fundamental field – even if we don’t realise it. People have intuitively suspected for 5,000 years that all of life is connected in one way or another. They feel it – even more so in the present time – but there is still no scientific theory to substantiate that feeling. Moreover, this is not about something new. It’s about a rediscovery of insights that have been part of humanity for a very long time. People possess the ability to comprehend more than what their known senses can grasp.”
He falls silent for a moment, then smiles. “I don’t want to treat this topic wearing an orange robe and sandals, but in a way that people can understand. It is my job to supply the proof.”
Laszlo’s theory of the information field is controversial: it rejects Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which is based on pure chance— a process of random adjustments that ultimately lead to the survival of the fittest. To illustrate the improbability of the coincidence in Darwin’s theory, Laszlo points out the fact that there were ‘only’ 500 million years between the first bacteria and the creation of complex life on earth. He compares the process to Rubik’s cube. The aim of the cube puzzle is to end up with six surfaces with six different colours. The number of rotations you need in randomly trying to realise that aim is enormous. If you took one second for every rotation, you would need 40 billion years – three times the life span of the universe – to try all the possibilities. But an average of only 120 movements are needed to twist the puzzle into its proper place if each movement is affirmed or rejected. Feedback – information – exponentially speeds up complex processes. “It is therefore unimaginable that the universe, with all its unusual, sensitive patterns and the complex life on earth were created by random coincidence,” Laszlo argues. “It should have taken much, much longer. You have to be either blind or biased not to accept that.”
We owe our existence to information that was already there, he says. Information was there prior to the beginning of life on earth. The proto-organisms that arose on this planet were already in-formed by life elsewhere. “Calculations of astronomers indicate that there are at least 100 million, possibly even 100 billion, planets in the cosmos, which – according to our standards – should be able to sustain life.”
Then the question remains where the initial information came from. “The information field is not the final word, not the answer to everything. But I am convinced that it is the right next step.”
In Cosmic Vision he refers to mysticism, to the fact that in the East, reference was made thousands of years ago to the Akasha field from which life purportedly originated. “I think it’s more than a myth,” he writes, “but the definitive answer to this question is reserved for science.”
As the question from the physics professor in Stuttgart illustrates, scientists are not yet anxious to embrace this radical new vision. Laszlo dryly notes, “Oh well, that’s always the way. The typical first reaction is to ignore everything that doesn’t fit in with conventional wisdom. Forty years ago I started to closely examine systems. Now systems theory is an established discipline. This is the way it will go with the information field. Acceptance will take another decade or two. Developments are moving quickly. It doesn’t help that the implications of a new theory are so all encompassing. That forces scientists to look outside their familiar specialities. But because there is so much competition, scientists in fact withdraw in their own ‘niches’.”
Open-mindedness is a condition for progress, according to Laszlo. “Einstein was not a physicist. That’s why he asked the right questions.” And it may be, although Laszlo doesn’t seem to realise it, that his own strength is exactly the same. He is not hindered by being stuck in his opinions, by voices from professors and mentors. His only ‘education’ – aside from his mother’s piano lessons – consisted of long walks through the woods with his uncle, who was a philosopher during his youth in Hungary. During those walks he learned the art of amazement, and the technique of asking questions.
Because Laszlo is not a scientist, he is not pursuing the career path of a scientist. He is pursuing his own life wherever it takes him. It led him first to music, then to science and not to his third ‘career’, the essence of which is summed up by the title of his recent book: You Can Change the World.
He believes the world must change. The world is not sustainable in its present form. And that – according to Laszlo – has everything to do with the prevailing image of the world: “What you see is what you get, so the saying goes. I say: what you see is how you behave.”
How people see the world is largely determined by science. Newton presented the world as a mechanism that people can adjust as they see fit. Darwin explained the world as based on competition, which characterises modern business. “These notions form the root of the problems facing our world,” Laszlo says. “The world looks very different if you see society as an organism you are a part of. That means that a development somewhere else affects you as well. And it also means: if you harm someone else, you are harming yourself.”
So to Laszlo, the vision of a universe that is connected by an information field is not as important in explaining the laws of physics, but as a new paradigm that will allow to see our world in new ways and to improve it. “Just imagine that you come to the conclusion that what you do in your society affects other societies; that the fact that you’re trying to do something, that you’re resolved to accomplish something, the fact that you hold particular values or have a particular mentality, has an effect on other people. I think it will make an enormous difference.
“That realisation will bring more solidarity, more responsibility to the environment, more mutual respect and a greater sense of unity to the world. This is not about a new model, like the difference between the planned economy and the free market. This is about a basic attitude: you are nature, you are society and that means that you cannot get away with manipulating nature or other people. Another vision on existence will lead to very different political and economic models.”
Laszlo refers to the Eastern belief in reincarnation. “People in Asia have a totally different mentality. They don’t treat their environment irresponsibly, because they believe that they will also damage their own life, perhaps when they next reincarnate. Which is why they generally treat each other and the community with more gentleness and respect. Asians believe they are a part of a progressive evolutionary process, while in the West we believe we only live once, alone on our own spot and that’s that. We don’t solve the problems because we are looking at the world in the wrong way. It’s not due to a lack of political will as we so often complain, but a faulty mindset.”
In order to further stimulate this much-needed change, Laszlo founded the Club of Budapest (see box) in 1993 with a number of leading scientists, artists and thinkers. Just as the prominent Club of Rome – with which Laszlo was also involved as the author of one of its reports –advocates a change in how we treat our natural habitats and resources, Laszlo wants the Club of Budapest to stimulate a profound change of consciousness.
But it’s a daunting task, which at times feels impossible, he has set out for himself and his circle of companions. But Laszlo knows very well that the evolution of society is full of sudden change. “I have intensively studied such systems and I know that a small move at a critical point can change the prevailing vision. Then you can have a major influence on the world. I plant seeds in people’s minds. If enough people realise that they need to start looking for new ways to live together on this small planet, this can topple the prevailing systems. We need to mobilise creativity. Creativity that refuses to accept the existing order and that wants to discover that there are other ways to live.”
Laszlo finds hope in the spreading phenomenon of ‘Cultural Creatives’, the name given by American researchers Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson for the growing numbers of people opting for a healthier, sustainable, more compassionate and authentic way of living. Cultural Creatives refers to people who, for example, sometimes shop at natural food stores, use alternative medicine or have solar panels on their roofs. According to Ray and Anderson, this covers nearly 24% of the American population – and the studies in Europe point to similar levels.
“The power of that movement is underestimated,” Laszlo maintains. “By the people who are a part of it, but also by the business community and political world. More and more people are starting to live differently and change their priorities. They experience the miracle of life instead of fighting for survival, wealth and power. It’s a choice anyone can make.”
His fingers may be out of practice – “I have to practice for about three days before I’ve re-mastered the piano,” he admits – but idealism burns strong and fierce in Laszlo’s eyes. Life energy doesn’t always diminish by the passage of time. We walk together at a fast clip through the streets of Stuttgart in the evening cold. On the way to another meeting. Another goal. Driven by a new idea. And I realise that there is no better path to follow than the one dictated by your own questions.
Professor Ervin Laszlo was born in 1932 in Hungary. He was a concert pianist and taught philosophy, systems theory and futurology at Yale and Princeton, among other prestigious institutions. He publishes the scientific magazine World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution, which is issued eight times a year. Laszlo is the founder and president of the Club of Budapest, in which scientists, artists and thinkers dedicate themselves to creating a better world. He is the author of over 70 books that have been translated into 18 languages. The following is a selection of the books Laszlo has written over the past 10 years:
The Creative Cosmos: A Unified Science of Matter, Life and Mind (1993)
The Interconnected Universe: Conceptual Foundations of Transdisciplinary Unified Theory (1995)
The Whispering Pond: A Personal Guide to the Emerging Vision of Science (1996)
The Systems View of the World: A Holistic Vision for Our Time (1996)
The Consciousness Revolution: A Transatlantic Dialogue: Two Days With Stanislav Grof, Ervin Laszlo, and Peter Russell (1999)
Macroshift: Navigating the Transformation to a Sustainable World (2001)
The Connectivity Hypothesis, Foundations of an Integral Science of Quantum, Cosmos, Life and Consciousness (2003)
You Can Change the World, Action Handbook for the 21st Century (2003)
His latest book, Cosmic Vision: The Dawn of the Integral Theory of Everything will be published this year.