Intercentricity – the web of reciprocal aliveness (Part 1)

Back in August 1991 – at the dawn of my co-intelligence work – I wrote an essay exploring the implications of seeing the world made up of source points of engagement and the webs of relationships that from – and fed into – those engagements. I called this worldview “intercentricity”. I shared it with some friends but never published it (although I did mention “intercentricity” in my 2014 post “Exploring Wholeness in more detail – to support our highest aspirations”). As I witness today’ fracturing of civilization in so many ways at so many levels, it seems timely to bring intercentricity out into the world for broader distribution, discussion and exploration I’ve updated and revised the 30-year old essay for easier reading and fit for our current era. I’m now posting it in two parts. This post, Part 1, is an introduction to the basic principles of intercentricity. Part 2 will explore some of the implications and applications of this intriguing perspective. – Tom


In the objective view of reality, the universe is filled with separate objects. Each is defined and recognized by its boundaries, its form, its appearance. Its edges and the spaces around it keep it separate from everything else. These separate objects influence each other – moving, changing, and contextualizing each other in various ways.

This objective perspective helps us use, influence and predict people, objects and events. It helps us survive as separate entities. And objective, science-based technologies have emerged as consummate tools for apparent independence and powerful control.

Objectivity makes a persuasive claim to represent Reality: it FEELS true! Our senses and other cognitive capacities evolved through rough-and-tumble eons of biological evolution involving the physical lives, the interactions among and the deaths of untold trillions of ancestor organisms. Those that survived bequeathed to us our capacity to know.

Thus our cognitive capacities are tied, in a circular and mutually-defining way, to survival-related aspects of the objective world: Those organisms which possessed survival-honed senses or mental capacities survived to perceive the world through the lens of those senses and mental capacities. [1]

Since the vast majority of us share the same evolved senses, we naturally share, as well, a common picture of the world as painted by those shared senses. People whose picture differs significantly from the rest of ours tend to be marginalized as ill, disabled or crazy, or they die of their own accord through their inability to relate to objects which facilitate or threaten their survival. [2] It is no surprise that we collectively function as if we live in a single, all-inclusive objective world which is both understandable through our senses and exists independently outside of us.

Our personally subjective worlds are considered private auxiliaries to the one-and-only objective world. They are not seen to be as “real” as the objective world is. Our personal views of things are considered (at least from the objective stance) to be sort of footnotes on the main text of reality or, worse yet, a filter that distorts what is really there – even to the point of delusion. On the other hand, some philosophers maintain that the objective world is a product of subjectivity, since we cannot know anything except through our own experience – including our own experience of what others tell or show us. Other philosophers see reality as co-created or intersubjective – as an emergent phenomenon arising from our collective perceptions and interactivity.

All these perspectives offer distinct insights into the nuanced nature of “reality”. But they aren’t the only useful ways to look at it.


The intercentric perspective cuts the reality pie in a significantly different way. From this perspective we think in terms of essence more than substance, of interrelationship more than force, on webs of contribution more than the interactions among objects.

(In discussing intercentricity, I use the word “center” to refer to an entity’s essential nature, the source of its awareness and/or engagement, as distinct from its form or attributes. In the case of conscious entities, the idea of “center” overlaps with the idea of “subject” (as in “subjective”), but to avoid confusion, I avoid referring to subjects and subjectivity. [3])

Through the lens of intercentricity, the identity of something — that which makes it uniquely itself — is derived both from its center and its position in the universal fabric of relationships. Position, in this sense, means several things – its physical location, its role in processes and activities, its meaning and, indeed, any or all relationships it may have with other entities, and its relevance to them.

So in this alternative “intercentric” view of reality, the significance of things is more important than their bounded definition. The heart of a thing — its unseen center — is more important than its appearance. Its relationship to other things tells us more about it, and is more useful in identifying it, than its form or bounded separateness.

Form, itself, plays a less dominant but more dynamic role in the intercentric worldview than in the objective one. The intercentric view notes that forms are constantly changing, albeit in ways and at scales and speeds at which we may not notice those changes. Yet they are real. Intercentricity maintains that, therefore, the shape of change itself — i.e., process — is more relevant and real than the transient forms we usually associate with reality. Boundaries and shapes, although real enough, are more like permeable, changing interfaces, more usefully conceived of as connecting things to each other than separating them. For example, our skin can be seen as separating us from the world, but in microscopic, sensual and functional realms it soon becomes obvious that it is far more important as a means of connection with the world.

Cause-and-effect dynamics also emerge as a subset of relationship, along with distance and meaning. Cause-and-effect is a dichotomy which implies a linear, one-way relationship which, though useful for figuring out how to influence or control something, is nevertheless a very partial view of what’s going on and therefore not to be fully trusted. No relationship is ever one-way. A causative agent is always affected by the object of its action, and effects are almost never single and bounded but reverberate out into the world in often unpredicted or unrealized ways. To the extent we (individually and collectively) recognize this and act on it, we end up with fewer unexpected and unpleasant consequences, because we are not so blinded by the illusion of our linear, controlling power. We would be in more mutual, reciprocal relationships with other entities and energies that share our life-space.

As noted above, the intercentric perspective suggests that the essential “entitiness” or “identity” of something derives not from its form so much as from its unique place, relationships, and meaning. A “thing” or “being” is the embodiment or focal point of the roles it plays in its world, the unique character with which it plays those roles and how the roles of other things play out in its existence. Uniqueness is inherent in intercentricity. No two things are ever seen to be the same — although temporarily, for convenience, we may treat them as if they were. For example, it is useful to have a word, “patient”, which includes a class of unique objects (people) which share a certain form (a body) and function (receiving treatment). However, doctors steeped in the intercentric perspective would be unlikely to confuse the individuals standing before them for the idea of “patients”. They would know that “patient” was a verbal convenience which overstepped its function if it got in the way of treating the individual before them as a unique being embedded in a dense web of relationships.

The identity of living things is understood to be their spirit, their “self,” their unseen, generative center — the source-point of their own alive consciousness. This can be experienced by other living beings (centers, selves), either through direct communion or, indirectly, through observing their uniquely characteristic relationships (“by their fruits shall ye know them”).

This is the intercentric world, a world of inter-related centers, a world where concerns about form and causation are subordinated to concerns about relationship, process, meaning, direct communion, story (who we are all becoming, in relationship) and the expressiveness of character.

When humans see themselves and their lives as part of the objective world, their basic approach is to manipulate the world and its entities to achieve their goals. They feel themselves to be standing outside the world, looking into it, acting on it – or embedded in it and subject to its manipulations. Success, autonomy, efficiency and control are valued above all else, and all things are categorized and quantified to the extent possible, to make them easier to manipulate, fight, or escape.

On the other hand, when humans see themselves and their lives as part of the intercentric world, their activities are characterized by responsiveness and respectful awareness. The quality of things, of activities and of consciousness, takes on special importance. People feel themselves to be immersed in the world, moved by it, involved in a participatory and endless dance among everyone and everything in it.

In the next part we’ll explore some implications of this perspective, what it can mean for the ways we think about various realms of activity and how we lead our everyday lives and build our futures together.



[1]. We know that our evolved senses are not comprehensive. We humans do not, for example, perceive electromagnetic fields around our electric blankets or pesticide residues in our food. It is easy to see why: these things did not exist in dangerous levels prehistorically, when our senses were evolving. There was no advantage to perceiving electromagnetic fields and, in fact, if a mutation allowed an organism to perceive them, those additional perceptions might well have interfered with the organism’s attention to sight and sound stimuli, cluttering up its worldview and reducing its chances of survival. It is unlikely that humans will evolve such senses now, even though they would greatly enhance our survival capabilities, because civilization has interfered with the traditional activities of natural selection (e.g., helping problematic human forms survive and reproduce). However, I suspect such senses may one day be genetically engineered or otherwise wired into our perceptual fields. But that is not the point I wanted to make here. The main point is that our existing senses do not give us the full story on the world around us, and that should make us a bit humble when we talk about “reality” — particularly when we think reality is one objective thing.

[2]. Note that our perceptions evolved to recognize those entities that facilitated or threatened our survival in the natural world, at the scale which roughly corresponded to the size of our organism — e.g. meters and feet as opposed to nanometers and light-years. Through progressive extension of these senses beyond human scale – as with the increasing power of microscopes and telescopes – our perception has broken out of our evolutionarily dictated sense of things into both vaster and more miniscule realities. Following the extension of our senses, we have extended our ability to impact and manipulate (both knowingly and unknowingly) reality at both larger and smaller scales. These impacts are often collectively generated (such as global climate disruption and plastic pollution) and collectively perceived (through science and the media). But most people’s realities and motivations are still individually derived. And since we don’t individually perceive climate disruption (except conceptually, or through the increasing violence of weather patterns), we are not adequately stimulated to respond in ways that will facilitate our survival. Our individual reflexes and perceptions have not evolved as fast as our collective ability to generate consequences that endanger our survival. Thus, as Einstein said, “we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” We can hope that efforts to make up for this sensory deficiency through the development of our intellects and our emotional and spiritual sensitivities will rescue us in time. This philosophical work is one such effort.

[3}. In philosophy, the word “subject” has two definitions. In one, “subject” refer to “the mind as distinguished from the object of thought” — a vital distinction in the subjective/objective dichotomy. In the other definition, “subject” refers to “the essential nature of something as distinguished from its attributes.” This is a concept of great importance to intercentricity. However, I do not use the word “subject” in this sense in my discussion of intercentricity because it tends to confuse matters, since it connotes the other “personal reality” kind of subjectivity. Thus I use the word “center” for the essential interior dimension of life as well as for all “central” aspects of reality and an entity’s intersectional position in webs of relationship.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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