Holism in science
, or Holistic science
, is an approach to research
that emphasizes the study of complex systems
. This practice is in contrast to a purely analytic tradition (sometimes called reductionism
) which purports to understand systems by dividing them into their smallest possible or discernible elements and understanding their elemental properties alone. The holism/reductionism dichotomy is often evident in conflicting interpretations of experimental findings and in setting priorities for future research.
Holism in science is an approach to research
that emphasizes the study of complex systems
. Two central aspects are:
- the way of doing science, sometimes called "whole to parts," which focuses on observation of the specimen within its ecosystem first before breaking down to study any part of the specimen.
- the idea that the scientist is not a passive observer of an external universe; that there is no 'objective truth,' but that the individual is in a reciprocal, participatory relationship with nature, and that the observer's contribution to the process is valuable.
The term holistic science has been used as a category encompassing a number of scientific research fields (see some examples below). The term may not have a precise definition. Fields of scientific research considered potentially holistic do however have certain things in common.
First, they are multidisciplinary. Second, they are concerned with the behavior of complex systems. Third, they recognize feedback within systems as a crucial element for understanding their behavior.
The Santa Fe Institute, a center of holistic scientific research in the United States, expresses it like this:
- The two dominant characteristics of the SFI research style are commitment to a multidisciplinary approach and an emphasis on the study of problems that involve complex interactions among their constituent parts. Santa Fe Institute's Research Topics. Retrieved on January 22., 2006.
Topics in Holism in science
Alternative to reductionism
Some advocates of holism
refer to orthodox science as reductionist science
or the reductionist paradigm
or greedy reductionism
. This is a compact way to allude to a tendency of classical science towards the modular: that is, to break systems down into manageable parts for study.
The holistic premise is that there is a possible qualitative difference between an entire system and its parts: that modularisation may fail. As applied to science, holists may generally assert that this difference can warrant the kind of rigorous scrutiny typical of scientific inquiry. The distinction of approach then lies not so much in the subjects chosen for study, but in the methods and assumptions used to study them. For example, in the field of quantum physics, David Bohm pointed out that there is no scientific evidence to support the dominant view that the universe consists of a huge, finite number of minute particles, and offered in its stead a view of undivided wholeness.
Though considered by some as alternative, holistic methods are not generally at odds with the classical scientific method. Where holistic scientists come from a standard science background, holistic work in science tends to be, to varying degrees, a marriage of the two approaches. For example gestalt psychology grew out of early experimental psychology. When the terms are used constructively in the science context, holism and reductionism refer to how empirical evidence is interpreted, and not only to the methods used to produce such evidence.
Holistic science is controversial
. One opposing view is that holistic science is "pseudoscience
" because it does not rigorously follow the scientific method
despite the use of a scientific-sounding language. Bunge (1983) and Lilienfeld et al (2003) state that proponents of pseudoscientific claims, especially in organic medicine, alternative medicine, naturopathy and mental health, often resort to the “mantra of holism” to explain negative findings or to immunise their claims against testing. Stenger (1999) states that "holistic healing is associated with the rejection of classical, Newtonian physics. Yet, holistic healing retains many ideas from eighteenth and nineteenth century physics. Its proponents are blissfully unaware that these ideas, especially superluminal holism, have been rejected by modern physics as well".
Science journalist John Horgan has expressed this view in the book, The End of Science 1996. He wrote that a certain pervasive model within holistic science, self-organized criticality, for example, "is not really a theory at all. Like punctuated equilibrium, self-organized criticality is merely a description, one of many, of the random fluctuations, the noise, permeating nature." By the theorists' own admissions, he said, such a model "can generate neither specific predictions about nature nor meaningful insights. What good is it, then?"
Applications of holism in science and engineering
Many scientific disciplines are affected by the holistic paradigm. Some of these are widely accepted parts of mainstream science
, while others are variously considered to be protoscientific
or even pseudoscientific
The field of cognitive science
, or the study of mind and intelligence has some examples for holistic approaches. These include Unified Theory of Cognition
, e.g. Soar
) and many others, many of which rely on the concept of emergence
, i.e. the interplay of many entities make up a functioning whole. Another example is psychological nativism
, the study of the innate structure of the mind.
Non-holistic functionalist approaches within cognitive science include e.g. the modularity of mind
Cognitive science need not concern only human cognition. Biologist Marc Bekoff has done holistic, interdisciplinary scientific research in animal cognition and has published a book about it (see below).
In the standard Copenhagen Interpretation
of quantum mechanics there is a holism of the measurement situation, in which there is a holism of apparatus and object. There is an "uncontrollable disturbance" of the measured object by the act of measurement according to Niels Bohr
. It is impossible to separate the effect of the measuring apparatus from the object measured.
Another appearance of holism in quantum mechanics is in the Pauli Exclusion Principle. The spins of pairs of particles at the same energy level and quantum number (except for spin) have opposite or anti-correlated spins. This holds no matter how far the particles are separated. Henry Margenau early discussed the holistic nature of this situation. For instance in some metals, the electrons are not attached to a single atom, but the molecular orbitals are for the whole piece of metal.
Related to the Pauli Principle, but developed later is the holism of quantum systems that appears in the Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen (EPR) Experiment. If the momentum, position, or spin of an article is only determinate when actually measured, then the anti-correlated particle will acquire the appropriate characteristic when the first particle is measured, but the two may be very distantly separated, so far apart that information cannot be communicated between them if limited by the speed of light.
Bell's Theorem, which was primarily developed to investigate the possibility of locally causally deterministic so-called hidden variable theories (see Bohm below) shows a holism of correlation of measurement results. John Bell himself interpreted this as showing a holism.
Physicist David Bohm put forward an interpretation of quantum theory that reconciles it with an idea of the universe as an undivided whole, any division of which (e.g. into observer and observed) can only be arbitrary. Despite its elegant simplicity and distinct advantages, this holistic interpretation was given at best an ambivalent reception by mainstream scientists. Recently, however (from the 1990s to the present) Bohm's reputation in the field of quantum physics has grown, though many of his holistic ideas remain in dispute.
, the holistic approach can be considered "natural" because one of main engineering tasks is to design systems not existing yet. Therefore, conceptual design begins from a general idea which is successively specialized top-down
. This process is stopped when the specified details are components
available on the market
From the general and pragmatic, goal-oriented
perspective, the holistic and reductionist science approaches can be considered complementary .
- Ecology, or ecological science, i.e. studying the ecology at levels ranging from populations, communities, and ecosystems up to the biosphere as a whole.
- The study of climate change in the wider context of Earth science (and Earth system science in particular) can be considered holistic science, as the climate (and the Earth itself) constitutes a complex system to which the scientific method cannot be applied using current technology. The first scientist to seriously propose this was James Lovelock. (URL accessed on 28 November 2006)
- Princeton University hosts a holistic science project entitled "Global Consciousness Project" that uses a network of physical random number generators to register events of global significance, testing the hypothesis that there is a collective human consciousness at work in the world.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1810 book Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) not only parted radically with the dominant Newtonian optical theories of his time, but also with the entire Enlightenment methodology of reductive science. Although the theory was not received well by scientists, Goethe — considered one of the most important intellectual figures in modern Europe — thought of his color theory as his greatest accomplishment. Holistic theorists and scientists such as Rupert Sheldrake still refer to the Goethe's color-theory as an inspiring example of holistic science. The introduction to the book lays out Goethe's unique philosophy of science.
- In system dynamics modeling, a field that originated at MIT, a holistic controlling paradigm organizes scientific method, but uses the results of reductionist science to define static relationships between variables in a modeling procedure that permits simulation of the dynamics of the system under study. As mentioned above, feedback is a crucial tool for understanding system dynamics.
- Another example of how holistic and reductionist science can be mutually supportive and cooperative is free choice profiling.
- In Interdisciplinary holistic research Joe L. Kincheloe, in his work in critical pedagogy and the research bricolage has employed complexity and holism in science to overcome reductionism.
Kincheloe draws on these understandings in the effort to address the often overlooked complexity of everyday life in contemporary social science. Such complexity is embedded:
- in notions of explicate and implicate orders of reality--the explicate order consists of simple patterns and invariants in time. These characteristics of the world, as theorized by physicist David Bohm, seem to repeat themselves in similar ways and possess recognizable locations in time and space. The implicate order is a much deeper structure of the world. It is the level at which ostensible separateness disappears and all things seem to become a part of a larger unified process. Implicate orders are marked by the simultaneous presence of a sequence of many levels of enfoldment with similar dissimilarities existing among them. Researchers who recognize complexity search for this implicate order as a process often hidden from social, cultural, psychological, and pedagogical researchers.
- the questioning of universalism--contextual specificities may interfere with a researcher's ability to generalize findings to a level of universal application. With the recognition of complexity universal theories of intelligence, for example, might have to respect and thus account for the way individuals and groups in diverse social settings conceptualize the concept (Kincheloe, Steinberg, and Villaverde, 1999).
- polysemy--interpretation is always a complex process and different words and phrases depending on the context in which they are used can mean different things to different individuals. Thus, the research process is always more complex than initially perceived.
- the living process in which cultural entities are situated--in the zone of complexity processes may be more fundamental to understanding the socio-cultural world than isolated entities. Knowledge in this process-oriented context has a past and a future; researchers have traditionally viewed a phenomenon in a particular stage of its development. Bricoleurs operating on a terrain of complexity understand that they must transcend this tendency and struggle to comprehend the process of which an object of study is a part.
- the ontology of relationships and connections--in complexity theory the concept of relatedness is deemed to possess properties and influences that are just beginning to be understood. For example, complexity theorists argue that the self is less stable and essentialized than was previously thought. In this context the relationship between self and culture becomes a central focus in particular forms of social, cognitive, and psychological research. Culture is not merely the context in which the self operates, but it is "in the self"--an inseparable portion of what we call the self. Who we are as human beings is dependent on the nature of such relationships and connections.
- intersecting contexts--critical complex researchers operating in the complexity zone understand that knowledge can never stand alone or be complete in and of itself. When researchers abstract, they take something away from its context. Of course we all abstract but researchers as bricoleurs refuse to lose sight of the contextual field--indeed, the intersecting contextual fields--that provide separate entities diverse meanings. Contextualization is always a complex act as it exposes connections between what were assumed to be separate entities. In this activity researchers come to see dimensions of an object of study never before noticed. When researchers realize that there all always multiple contexts in which to view phenomena, they come to understand that some reductionistic notion of a definitive or final comprehension of an object of study is a reductionistic concept. There is always another context in which a phenomenon can be studied.
- the existence and utility of feedback loops--many phenomena, living things in particular, are composed of a multitude of feedback loops--a central dimension of chaos theory. A home furnace is one of the most familiar forms of a simple feedback loop. We all know that when a room cools down below the temperature set on the thermostat, it responds by switching on the furnace. As the furnace hearts up the room to a point above the second temperature set on the thermostat, the furnace automatically shuts off. The ear-splitting screeches produced when a microphone is placed close to a speaker, feedback, is another example of a feedback loop. Output from the amplifier is detected by the microphone and looped back into the amplifier. The chaotic sounds that result are the consequence of a feedback loop where the output of one stage turns into the input of another. Because human beings are composed of so many feedback loops, e.g., the transformation of food into energy, the increase in heart-rate in the presence of danger, etc., the attempt to study them takes on far more complexity than traditional conceptions of cause-effect linearity could imagine.
- multiple epistemologies--depending on where observers stand in the multidimensional web of reality, they will come to see different phenomena in different ways. Kincheloe argues that holistic researchers understand that in this complex context diverse epistemologies will develop in different historical and cultural locales. As opposed to European modes of knowledge production diverse peoples of the planet have produced ways of knowing that often have come directly into conflict. In their appreciation of epistemological complexity, critical holistic researchers seek out diverse epistemologies for their unique insights and sophisticated modes of making meaning. In this search they gain provocative insights into epistemological diversity around issues of the relationships between mind and body, self and other, spirit and matter, knower and known, things-in-themselves and relationships, logic and emotion, etc. These insights allow them to ask new questions of epistemology and the research act.
- intertextuality--adding to the complexity of the bricoleur's understanding of the research act is the notion of intertextuality defined simply as the complicated interrelationship connecting a text to other texts in the act of textual creation or interpretation. Central to the importance of intertextuality in the context of critical holistic research and the effort to understand complexity involves the notion that all narratives obtain meaning not merely by their relationship to material reality but from their connection to other narratives. A research account in this context cannot be understood without historical situating it in relation to other research narratives. With this understanding of intertextuality researchers are always aware that the inquirers, the consumer/reader of the research, and exterior research narratives always occupy points on intersecting intertextual axes. In this way they are always influencing one another and any effort to make meaning of any research act.
- discursive construction--all knowledge production is shaped tacitly or consciously by discursive rules and practices. Holistic inquirers exploring the complexity of the research act are always exploring the discursive construction of research narratives. They work to uncover the hidden rules that define what a researcher can and cannot say, who possesses the power to speak/write about particular topics and who must listen/read, and whose constructions of reality are valid and whose are unlearned and unimportant. Critical holistic researchers understand Michel Foucault's assertion that fields of knowledge take their forms as a result of the power relations of discursive practices.
- the interpretive aspect of all knowledge--as argued throughout this description of the bricolage, interpretation is always at work in the act of knowledge production--the "facts" never speak for themselves. As inhabitants of the world, researchers are oriented to it in a manner that prevents them form grounding their findings outside of it. Thus, whether we like it or not, all researchers are destined to be interpreters who analyze the cosmos from within its boundaries and blinders. To research we must interpret; indeed, to live we must interpret.
- the fictive dimension of research findings--since in the zone of complexity no fact is self evident and no representation is "pure," any knowledge worker who believes research narratives are simple truths is operating in a naïve domain. Thus, holistic analysts assert that there are fictive elements to all representations and narratives. Such fictive dimensions may be influenced by a variety of forces including linguistic factors, narrative emplotment strategies, and cultural prejudices.
- the cultural assumptions within all research methods--Western science as well as any form of knowledge production is constructed at a particular historical time and in a specific cultural place. These temporal and spatial dimensions always leave their mark on the nature of the research methods employed and the knowledges produced. As multiperspectival research pursues complexity, it induces researchers to seek the specific ways these cultural assumptions shape knowledge production, their own research processes in particular. Researchers operating with a consciousness of these dynamics use the insights gleaned from it to seek more complex ways of producing knowledge that are consciousness of the many tacit ways cultural assumptions wander unnoticed within the act of researching.
- the relationship between power and knowledge--power like the research act itself is more complex than we originally posited. Power can be a censor that excludes, blocks, and represses like a great superego. On the other hand, however, power is a great producer, creating knowledge and legitimate ways of seeing. As a censor in research, power serves to limit what constitutes a legitimate focus of research, excluding "dangerous" investigations. As a producer in the research context, power serves to reward particular ways of seeing and specific activities. For example, in higher education researchers who desire success in their fields learn to follow particular research norms allowing them the rewards of funded grants and promotions based on scholarly productivity. The way different research orientations draw boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not constitutes the ideological dimension of the act of inquiry. Here, critical holistic researchers understand, complexity abounds, as power is at work promoting particular views of research rigor and validity and notions of "unscientific" or soft research unworthy of certification at any level. The ability to trace the footprints of power in the research domain is a central dimension in Kincheloe's efforts to understand complexity and knowledge production (Kincheloe, 2003; Kincheloe and Berry, 2004; Kincheloe, 2005).
The study of holism in science
Writers on holistic science
A text often referred to by writers on holistic science (and by all who recognize the existence of scientific paradigms
) is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
by Thomas Kuhn
. While this book does not address holistic science directly, it is relevant because, in it Kuhn originally coined the term "scientific paradigm" and introduced the concept of opposing, or even warring, paradigms in science.
The following have written influential books which treat non-reductionist or holistic science:
- Marc Bekoff, American biologist and cognitive ethologist, author of Species of Mind (with philosopher Colin Allen)
- David Bohm (1917-1992), American quantum physicist
- Henri Bortoft, physicist who did postgraduate research on the problem of wholeness in quantum physics with David Bohm, wrote The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature on Goethean science
- Kenneth E. Boulding, economist and system scientist
- Rachel Carson ecologist, biologist and author of Silent Spring
- Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), French paleontologist, biologist, philosopher
- Laurence W. Evans, Author of Nature's Holism that looks at holism through the coevolutionary process
- Murray Gell-Mann, physicist and Nobel laureate, wrote The Quark and the Jaguar, Adventures in the Simple and the Complex on complexity
- Willis Harman, former President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences
- Mae-Wan Ho, biologist
- Joe L. Kincheloe educational researcher, social critic, critical pedagogue
- Richard Levins, biologist
- Richard Lewontin biologist
- James Lovelock, scientist and writer
- Lynn McTaggart, Author, Journalist and Science Researcher
- Humberto Maturana, Chilean biologist and philosopher
- F. David Peat, physicist and writer, founder of the Pari Center for New Learning
- Ilya Prigogine, Belgian physicist, chemist, and writer, 1977 Nobel laureate in chemistry
- Alexander Rosenberg philosopher of science
- Rupert Sheldrake, biologist and prolific author
- Jan Smuts, Author of Holism And Evolution
- Francisco Varela (1946-2001), Chilean biologist
- Ken Wilber, American philosopher, psychologist and author of The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion
- Fred Alan Wolf, American physicist, author of Taking the Quantum Leap
- Stephen Wolfram, author of A New Kind of Science
Holistic science in academe
Perhaps due to the inherent multidisciplinary nature of holistic science, academic institutions have been slow to come forward with degree programs for it. Those that have done so include Schumacher College
in the UK, which offers an MSc degree program in Holistic Science. Several universities have set up centers dedicated to one or more scientific fields where holistic approaches are common. These include the University of Michigan
's Center for the Study of Complex Systems
, Princeton University
's Global Consciousness Project
, Rice University
's Cognitive Sciences Program
, the London Metropolitan University
's Centre for Postsecular Studies
, and the Hang Seng Centre for Cognitive Studies
There are also several non-university academic institutions and societies that are dedicated to holistic science or open to holistic ideas. For example, Santa Fe Institute (a major center of holistic scientific research in the U.S.), the Scientific and Medical Network (in Europe), the Pari Center for New Learning (in Italy), and the System Dynamics Society in Albany, New York. The VERITAS Research Program, affiliated with the University of Arizona, uses holistic approaches to test the existence of an afterlife. There is also the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California. Brazil has its Willis Harman House in São Paulo.
Articles related to holism
Articles related to classification of scientific endeavors
- Paul Davies and John Gribbin. The Matter Myth: Dramatic Discoveries That Challenge Our Understanding of Physical Reality, 1992, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-671-72841-5
- Henri Bortoft. The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Participation in Nature, 1996, Lindisfarne Books, ISBN 0-940262-79-7
- Joe L. Kincheloe. Critical Constructivism, 2005. NY, Peter Lang.
- Joe L. Kincheloe. Teachers as Researchers: Qualitative Paths to Empowerment. 2nd ed, 2003, London, Falmer.
- Joe L. Kincheloe and Kathleen Berry, Rigor and Complexity in Qualitative Research: Constructing the Bricolage, 2004, London, Open University Press.
- Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco Varela. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, 1992, Shambhala, ISBN 0-87773-642-1
- Ilya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers, Order out of Chaos: Man's new dialogue with nature, 1984, Flamingo, ISBN 0-00-654115-1
- Article "What is the Proper Relationship of Holistic and Reductionist Science?" by Karl North
- Article "The Fine Line: (W)holism and Science" by Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.
- Article "A New Image of Cosmos & Anthropos: From Ancient Wisdom to a Philosophy of Wholeness" by Michael R. Meyer
- Excerpts from Holistic Science — towards a second Renaissance by R.J.C. Wilding (unpublished book in process)
- Article " Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Science" by Mike King (available on-line)
- Article " Patterns of Wholeness: Introducing Holistic Science" by Brian Goodwin, from the journal Resurgence
- Article " From Control to Participation" by Brian Goodwin, from the journal Resurgence
- System Dynamics Resource Page at Arizona State University, hosted by Craig W. Kirkwood
- Introduction to Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc. State University of New York Press, 1998
2. Bunge.M., Demarcating Science from Pseudoscience. Fundamenta Scientiae, 1982, Vo. 3, No. 3/4, pg. 369-88
3. Lilienfeld,S.O. et al. (Eds.): Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. New York / London 2003
4. Olival Freire Jr., Science and exile: David Bohm, the hot times of the Cold War, and his struggle for a new interpretation of quantum mechanics (Online article)
5. Definition of System Dynamics and Systems Thinking, on System Dynamics Society homepage
6. Stenger.V.J., (1999) The Physics of 'Alternative Medicine'. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine Spring/Summer 1999 Volume 3 ~ Number 1