Explorations of wholeness: foundations of Holistic Science
An excerpt from ‘Exploring Participation’ (D.C.Wahl, 2002)
“The history of science is science itself.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“…in science, as in art, truth is active not passive, as the dogma of factualism implies. It is not the passive registration by an onlooker of what is there as such, independent of the scientist. The scientist is an active participant in scientific truth, but without this meaning that truth is thereby reduced to a merely subjective condition.”46
— Henri Bortoft
In this chapter I aim to show that holistic science has not appeared out of nowhere, but has a long tradition of respectable and accredited research in the natural and social sciences that has explored wholeness and interconnectedness from a dynamical process perspective in parallel with and within the academic institutions of the Reductionist mainstream.
[Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. Enjoy!]
Holistic science, like Newton once, is standing firmly on the shoulders of giants. It is supported by a tradition that reaches back through the centuries and contains the maverick scientists, who dared to think outside the box. Some of whom may well be celebrated as the Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes or Newton of a new participatory science of qualities by the historians of the future. Although I believe that individual achievements will not be overemphasized then.
The first attempt to provide an alternative or complementary epistemological perspective to the Cartesian-Kantian epistemology was made by the poet, scientist and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In a previous essay I have proposed a potential influence of Goethe’s familiarity with hermetic and alchemical texts and his lifelong interest in alchemy on his understanding of nature and on his work.47
It suffices to say that the development of the dynamical way of seeing did not start with Goethe. Yet, having previously been explored exclusively within the esoteric tradition, this dynamical understanding of wholeness found a very clear expression through Goethe.
Goethe’s scientific approach to the study of natural forms and colour provides the first clear example of an epistemological perspective that, as Richard Tarnas pointed out, was later “developed in new directions by Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Colerige, and Emerson and … Rudolf Steiner. Each of these thinkers gave his own distinct emphasis to the developing perspective, but common to all was a fundamental conviction that the relation of the human mind to the world was ultimately not dualistic but participatory.”48
The Goethean approach to nature is deeply participatory and holistic. He saw the individual as an abstraction of the dynamical movement of the whole. In the Goethean methodology the observer engages with the phenomena to a point where he confers all of his attention to the phenomenon and the phenomenon reveals itself to him. The observer participates in the phenomenon and with his full range of sensory and intuitive capabilities engages with the qualities of the phenomenon.
It is this participatory, phenomenological focus on qualities of Goethe’s way of seeing and working that strongly informs holistic science today. In a conversation with Roger Lewin about the science of complexity, Brian Goodwin commented: “Ours is a science of qualities not of quantities and is therefore a Goethean science.”49
In a recent talk at Schumacher College, Henri Bortoft explained the approach very clearly: “For Goethe the phenomenon is not an object. Imagination becomes the means for investigating the phenomenon itself and not what goes on behind the phenomenon, like in atomism. The phenomenon ceases to be an object standing over and against consciousness and the phenomenon begins to appear in consciousness, instead of appearing to it.”50 This clearly reflects the kind of thinking for which De Quincey provides an explicit philosophical framework (see above).
Goethe “went through a different doorway to nature than the one which had been taken in the scientific revolution. He developed a new kind of science, the science of Goethean style, which can be called the science of the wholeness of nature.”51
Ernst Kassirer writes: “The mathematical approach strives to make things calculable, Goethe on the other hand, strives to make the phenomenon visible.”52 Goethe was the first to develop a phenomenological, participatory science of wholeness. Since then wholeness has been explored through many different avenues, often within the framework of an otherwise Reductionist science.
The physicist David Bohm spent most of his life working on the understanding of wholeness. In his book Wholeness and the implicate order he writes that while “approaching the question in different ways, relativity theory and quantum theory agree, in that they both imply the need to look on the world as an undivided whole, in which all parts of the universe, including the observer and his instruments, merge and unite in one totality. In this totality, the atomistic form of insight is a simplification and an abstraction, valid only in some limited context.”53 While this agreement has existed since the beginning of the last century, most of current science is still based on a Newtonian and atomistic conception of the world.
Fortunately the tide is turning and the paradigm shift is gaining momentum. Just recently, during a course at Schumacher College, entitled Seeing Science with New Eyes the physicist Chris Clarke described his participatory understanding of the universe: “The only way is to start thinking about the universe is as a conversation, as a community of beings in interaction with each other, so each organism is acting and existing within the context set by all other organisms. …This is why we need the metaphor of organism. An organism is both relationable and it has a certain integrity and identity.”54
In a tutorial with the MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College, Rupert Sheldrake gave his account of the understanding of matter in modern physics as follows:
“Matter is energy bound within fields and insofar as an electron is matter it is a pattern of vibration in the electron field. According to quantum field theory matter is a field phenomenon… There is no such thing as brute matter like billard-balls. …Every aspect of matter has a field and a gravitational field associated with it extending through the entire universe, so there is a principle of universal connectedness through gravitation.
… Even according to Newton everything was interconnected. The universal theory of gravitation is a kind of primal wholistic theory of the interconnectedness of all matter. So there is no such thing as matter by itself, separate from everything else, even according to Newton.”55
— Rupert Sheldrake
It is important to realize that paradigms, as the predominant “constellation of concepts, values, perceptions, and practices … which form a particular vision of reality”56 do not change over night. Usually while the old paradigm seems at the peak of its success and becomes accepted by society at large the seeds for the new paradigm have already been planted and are quietly breaking the ground. Similarly the seeds for a more holistic science were planted long ago. John Briggs and David Peat write:
“The mechanistic worldview took several centuries to flower from the original seeds sown in the Middle Ages into the present triumphs of science and technology. At the turn of our own century quite a different seed was planted, this was done by the French physicist and philosopher Jules-Henri Poincaré, Today we are witnessing its unfolding in chaos theory.
Significantly, when Poincaré caught the first glimpse of chaos, it was in terms of a disorder and lawlessness in the Universe. What he saw was that chaos is wholeness. … Poincaré planted this germ of chaotic holism at the end of the nineteenth century, a moment when technological optimism and faith in a mechanistic worldview were at a high-water mark.”57
Poincaré’ s groundbreaking discovery was that is possible for the orbit of Jupiter and the orbit of an asteroid to enter into resonance as they are travelling their paths around the sun. This can lead to amplifications in the feedback loops connecting the two bodies and may cause the asteroids orbit to go chaotic.
Poincaré had shown that within the wholeness of the universe the orbits of all celestial bodies, small or large, feedback onto each other and this process causes the creation of chaotic zones within wholeness — chaos and wholeness are containing each other.58
Briggs and Peat point out that this chaotic wholeness si a very different kind of wholeness than the “symbolic wholeness of the medieval alchemist, the dual (yin-yang) wholeness of the ancient Chinese… chaotic wholeness is full of everything from self- organized systems to fractal self-similarity to unpredictable chaotic disorder.”59
In the midst of this unpredictable chaotic disorder, we yet again encounter the paradox: Order continuously emerges, unpredictably and transiently, only to dissolves again at the edge of chaos, thereby facilitating the emergence of creative novelty. This emergence is the basis for the adaptive transformation of the whole and the renewed expression of unpredictable and transient order within the complex, non-linear dynamics of chaotic wholeness.
The emergence of order out of chaos is not due to a deterministic, previously existing blueprint, but due to the intrinsic dynamics of repeated interactions among the diverse components of a complex whole — the relation between the whole and the parts! Chaos is not to be understood in terms of the colloquial use of the word, which equates it’s meaning with utter disorder.
“The scientific term chaos refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events. Chaos science focuses on hidden patterns, nuance, the sensitivity of things, and the rules for how the unpredictable leads to the new.”60
— Briggs & Peat
In a world obsessed with prediction and control, we so much wish for reality to conform to our current model of linear time, space and causality, but if we pay attention to our experience we will notice that the odds are against keeping up the make belief.
Complex, living processes have chaotic elements precisely because causality and space-time are not linear and the whole unen-folds in ways, that are more intelligible when modelled by non-linear complex dynamics, when we maintain an awareness of the fundamentally participatory nature of the process.
Any form of mathematical modelling, whether linear or non-linear remains an abstraction of this participatory process. Nevertheless such abstractions can be useful, if they make the process more intelligible, thereby helping to guide participation.
Chaos theory teaches us the invaluable lesson of fundamental unpredictability and, thus, about the futility of attempting control and prediction of the living, dynamic process. “Chaos, it turns out, is as much about what we can’t know as it is about certainty and fact. It’s about letting go, accepting limits, and celebrating magic and mystery.”61 The same is true for all the complexity sciences. In an unpredictable world there are no guarantees for survival and therefore one should adopt a new strategy, moving from control to participation.
The sciences of complexity are a variety of process-oriented areas of research exploring non-linearity, rather than a single scientific discipline. Through non-linear mathematics, chaos theory, fractal geometry, the theory of complex adaptive systems and Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures, conventional science -respected researchers, even Nobel laureates within the scientific community — has provided a scientific basis for a radically different, holistic understanding of the natural world.
Brian Goodwin, together with Peter Reason suggested six principles of complexity, summarizing the key features of complex systems. These are: Rich interconnections, iterations, emergence, holism, fluctuation and edge of chaos. While we should always remain aware that these principles were developed from computer models of closed systems, they are nevertheless useful in drawing insightful analogies to living dynamic processes on all scales. “Complexity theory suggests that we live in an unpredictable but nevertheless intelligible world.”62 We can recognize the principles of complexity in the processes of our bodies, in communities, ecosystems, on the planetary level as well as the scale of the universe.
The fundamental interconnectedness of the universe, as a whole, provides the basis of rich interconnections. Whether as Poincaré showed between celestial objects, or between the global scale carbon-, water-, climate- and temperature cycles studied by earth systems science and Gaia theory, rich interconnections are found. Just like between the diverse species and their environment in an ecosystem, or between the diverse individuals in any type of community, as well as between the over 250 different cell types in our body, and further on down the scales of magnitude rich interconnections express relationships.
Day and night, the lunar cycle, the seasons, the earth’s orbit around the sun, the equinoxes and solstices, the precession cycles drawn by the earth’s axis every 25,000 years and the orbits of the other planets as well as the rotation of galaxies, all these are examples of iteration — repetitions of process — on various spatial-temporal scales.
Iteration is a key feature of complexity. It is through the iterative process within a rich network of interacting elements that novel forms, behaviours and properties can emerge. Iterations are also at the core of fundamental unpredictability, since even minute differences in the initial conditions of a non-linear process are amplified by iteration and can have profound effects on the unfolding process — the famous butterfly-effect.
Whether with regard to the folding of a protein, the formation of lipid-vesicles, the metabolism of a single cell or of an entire organism, the metaphorical construct of emergence can serve to make complex processes more intelligible. The same holds for processes of communities of organisms, ecosystems, as well as planetary processes like the regulation of temperature and atmospheric composition.
Jeffery Goldstein defines emergence as referring “to the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.”63
What is important to understand here is that emergence takes place at a higher explanatory level. The novel forms, behaviours and properties of the whole complex process, “are neither predictable from, deducible from, nor reducible to the parts alone.” Goldstein argues that “turning to the new, higher, emergent level of explanation is, then, equivalent to admitting that an explanation of the system’s dynamics purely in terms of the lower level of the parts is insufficient.”64
Due to the non-linear relationships within the whole, it’s self- organizing properties transcend the properties of it’s parts and Reductionist analysis fails65, leaving us with the new aim of contextual intelligibility through focussing on relation and process, rather than attempting the control or prediction of outcomes. Silberstein defines emergent properties as “qualitatively new properties of systems or wholes that possess causal capacities that are not reducible to any of the causal capacities of their interacting parts.”66 Holism could be defined as the way of understanding emergent phenomena within the context of the processes of the larger whole.
“The Principle of holism argues that there are no privileged parts, no primary causes, no blueprint which defines the emergent order. A significant outcome of a science of qualities can be seen as living theory which guides and illuminates action. Such theory provides understanding in terms of a dynamic pattern of relationships which connects aspects of practice, rather than a hierarchical cause and effect explanation.”67
— Reason & Goodwin
There is no privileged set of components that codes for or determines the emergence of holistic order out of chaotic wholeness, “it is a consequence of the interaction between the component elements.”68 Far from equilibrium conditions describe the chaotic state of complex processes. The distinctive pattern of fluctuation in the variables, that defines deterministic chaos, changes as the process emerges out of chaos into novel, emergent order. Emergence occurs in this region, where we can observe a mixture of nascent order and chaos.
Brian Goodwin describes the edge of chaos as the “region of the dynamic spectrum” that “has a rich and distinctive pattern of fluctuation which can be seen as transient manifestations of the pattern that emerges when parameters change such that there is a transition to relatively stable expression of order.”69
Briggs and Peat explain that “whenever interactions, iterations, and feedback are at work, simplicity and complexity transform into one another.” This pattern of change is referred to as intermittency. It manifests as “bursts of chaos within regular order, but also outbreaks of simple order in the midst of chaos.”70 Within the process of the whole unen-folding through diversity, within chaotic wholeness, order and chaos are present at the same time and on all spatial-temporal scales.
Briggs and Peat pose a fascinating question: “Does chaos emerge because regular behaviour has temporarily broken down? Or is regular order really a breakdown of reality’s underlying chaos?”71 Any process of adaptive transformation requires the breakdown of old structures and order, so novelty can emerge to form the basis of another transient manifestation of order.
Stuart Kauffman believes: “The best place for systems to be, in order to respond appropriately to a constantly changing world, is at ‘the edge of chaos’. Here order and disorder are combined in such a way that the system can readily dissolve inappropriate order and discover patterns that are appropriate to changing circumstances”.72 “Life exists at the edge of chaos, moving from chaos into order and back again in a perpetual exploration of emergent order.” Brian Goodwin takes the perspective that “organisms are themselves expressions of this emergent order and agents of higher levels of emergence.” He describes the “whole spectacle of evolution” in the words of the process-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead as a “creative advance into novelty.”73
The essential shift is from observing the world as constituted of static opposites and explaining it by linear causality, to participating in the process of a world of dynamic polarities containing each other. In such a world causality is non-linear. Stacey et al. describe the paradox of non-linear causality, characteristic of emergence with regard to the interpretation of meaning:
“What is happening here is truly paradoxical for the future is changing the past and the past is changing the future. In terms of meaning the future changes the past and the past changes the future, and meaning lies not at a single point in the present but in this circular process of the present in which there is the potential for transformation as well as repetition.”74
— Stacey, Griffin & Shaw
Just as present interpretation of meaning is dependent on the cycle by which our present expectations of the future are shaped by our present memories of past, which in turn are dependent on each other, emergent properties of the whole emerge out of the interactions of constituent parts and simultaneously influence their interactions in such a way that the emergent property becomes possible.
The whole is thereby in a process of self- making, and simultaneously cause and effect of itself. As this process takes place in a perpetually transforming present it is impossible to comprehend without dropping the presupposition of linear time.
Briggs and Peat argue that time in our modern world has become our captor. I would add that in the reciprocity with which our concepts create our reality we also have become captives of our understanding of time. “The essence of time has been reduced to mere quantity, a numerical measure of seconds, minutes, hours and years…. Time’s qualities have vanished… time has lost its inner nature.” Briggs and Peat point out that time can be conceived of as having a fractal nature, which they call the fractal dimension of time and that this conception “accords with our immediate experience…. As we explore time’s fractal details, microevents flood in on us full of nuances hardly noticed before, while at the same time we sense the flow of faster and slower waves of time — the movement of the sun across the sky, the warming of the Earth, the growth of a seed, the aging of trees….”75
We all experience time on many different scales. The perspective of ‘participative self-organisation’, which I will describe in some more detail below, reflects this understanding of time as well as the perception of circular time discussed in the philosophical context. Douglas Griffin writes:
“What we are anticipating affects what we remember and what we remember affects what we expect, in a circular fashion, all in the present as the basis of our acting. In this way the movement of the living present is experience, having a circular time structure that arises simply because humans have the capacity for knowing what they are doing … There is no dismissing the past or the future here, nor is there any distraction of attention from the present of what we are doing together.”76
— Douglas Griffin
With regard to the separation of mind and matter, the self and the world and the study of consciousness within science, the biologist Gregory Batson was among the first to voice a conception of mind that went far beyond the Cartesian position. Batson regarded the phenomenon of life as inseparably connected to the phenomenon of mind and life’s organizing activity as essentially mental. He wrote: “Mind is the essence of being alive.”77 For him the perceived self was deeply interconnected with a larger mind. In his own words: “The individual nexus of pathways which I call ‘me’ is no longer so precious because that nexus is only part of a larger mind.”78
Gregory Batson expressed a deeply participatory understanding when he called the abstraction of a separate self the “epistemological fallacy of Western Civilisation” and pointed out that:
“This false reification of the self is basic to the planetary ecological crisis in which we find ourselves. We have imagined that we are a unit of survival and have to see to our own survival, and we imagined that the unit of survival is the separate individual or the separate species, where as in reality through the history of evolution, it is the individual plus the environment, the species plus the environment, for they are essentially symbiotic.”79
— Gregory Bateson
The microbiologist Lynn Margulis contributed greatly to our understanding of symbiotic processes and their fundamental role in the evolution of life. She showed that the eukaryotic cells — cells with a nucleus — evolved by one prokaryote engulfing another and the development of long term symbiotic relationships between the two. This reciprocally beneficial relationship thereby created new wholes that were greater than the sum of their parts.
This is an example of the profoundly cooperative basis of all life. Higher life forms could not have evolved without this cooperative act over two billion years ago. The discovery clearly provides good evidence against explaining evolution mainly with a one-sided focus on competition. “Life is much less a competitive struggle for survival than a triumph of cooperation and creativity.”80 Professor Goodwin writes:
“Darwinism sees the living process in terms that emphasize competition, inheritance, selfishness, and survival as the driving forces of evolution. These are certainly aspects of the remarkable drama that includes our own history as a species. But it is a very incomplete and limited story, both scientifically and metaphorically, based upon an inadequate view of organisms; and it invites us to act in a limited way as an evolved species in relation to our environment, which includes other cultures and species.
These limitations have contributed to some of the difficulties we now face, such as the crisis of environmental deterioration, pollution, decreasing standards of health and quality of life, and loss of communal values. But Darwinism short-changes us as regards our biological natures. We are every bit as co-operative as we are competitive; as altruistic as we are selfish; as creative and playful as we are destructive and repetitive. And we are biologically grounded in relationships which operate at all the levels of our beings as the basis of our natures as agents of creative evolutionary emergence, a property we share with all other species. “81
— Brian Goodwin
The most compelling example of the interconnectedness of life and the planet on all spatial-temporal scales is Gaia theory, as proposed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. The theory argues that the fact that despite a steady increase in solar luminosity the Earth’s temperature has remain relatively stable over time combined with the apparent chemical dis- equilibrium in the Earth’s atmospheric gases are major evidence for the existence of self- regulatory feedback processes linking life and its environment.
Gaia theory proposes that life was critically involved in maintaining the oxygen level in the atmosphere at around 21% for the last two-and-a-half billion years. The interplay between life, the oceans, the atmosphere and the earth has regulated the Earth’s average temperature, lowering the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide as solar luminosity increased.82
In studying the intricate connections between the biotic and the abiotic environment through Gaia theory, I have come to believe that the planet is as essentially alive, a self- regulating entity, which connects life and the environment through such complex interactions and intricate relationships on all spatial-temporal scales that it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the two. In the words of Stephan Harding:
“The Gaian approach opens new doors of perception and opens up our vision of inter-dependence of all things within the natural world. There is a symphonic quality in this interconnectedness, a quality which communicates an unspeakable magnificence… as you experience this dynamic, ever-shifting reality, you may suddenly find yourself in a state of meditation, a state in which you loose your sense of separate identity, and become totally engrossed in the life processes being contemplated; the contemplated and the contemplator become one.”83
— Stephan Harding
Both the disciplines of deep ecology and eco-psychology have been strongly influenced by the Gaian worldview. The eco-philosopher and co-founder of the deep ecology movement Arne Naess describes the central concept of deep ecology, the ecological self, as follows: “We may be in, of and for nature from our very beginning. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer in its constituent relations. These relations are not only relations we have with humans and the human community, but with the larger community of all living beings.”84
Deep ecology doesn’t separate humans from the natural world. It regards the world as fundamentally interconnected and recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings. Deep ecology “views humans just as one particular strand in the web of life.”85 Similarly eco-psychology argues that:
“Through thousands of years of anthropocentric conditioning, absorbed by osmosis since the day we were born, we have inherited shallow, fictitious selves, and have created an incredibly pervasive illusion of separation from nature.
… As long as the environment is ‘out there’, we may leave it to some special interest group like environmentalists to protect while we look after our ‘selves’. The matter changes when we deeply realize that the nature ‘out there’ and the nature ‘in here’ are one and the same, that the sense of separation no matter how pervasive is nonetheless totally illusory. I would call the need for such realisation the central psychological or spiritual challenge of our age.”86
— John Seed
It would by far exceed the limitations of this dissertation to attempt to cover all the various disciplines of the natural and social sciences, which have provided the historical and theoretical context out of which holistic science is forming today. Obviously classical ecology, the study of ecosystems and communities of organisms has been influential. They provided an early approach to studying organisms and species in the context of the larger whole — their environment. Another important influence and stepping stone of the complexity sciences has been systems theory as an early attempt to study those properties of the whole, which are not reducible to its parts.
Systems theory also inspired the study of self-organization in living systems and Humberto Maturana’s work on “autopoiesis” — the self-making of living organisms. This lead on to Maturana’s and Varela’s Santiago theory of cognition, which I have already mentioned in the philosophical context. Francisco Varela, since, has continued to research deeper into the understanding of human consciousness and founded the scientific discipline of neuro-phenomenology before he passed on last year.
Fritjof Capra’s books The Turning Point and The Web of Life provided a much deeper historical context of the current shift in paradigm and Richard Tarnas’ book The Passion of the Western Mind situates this paradigm shift within the two-thousand year development of the Western world- view.
One, very recent [written in 2002] attempt of providing interdisciplinary integration, is documented in the book Panarchy — Understanding Transformation in Human and Natural Systems, edited by Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling. It proposes a cross-scale, interdisciplinary and dynamic approach to understanding economic, ecological, and institutional systems and their interaction.
Drawing on complexity theory, “its essential focus is to rationalize the interplay between change and persistence, between the predictable and the unpredictable.”87 The name is derived from the Greek god Pan, as the symbol of unpredictable change and “as antithesis to the word hierarchy” refers to the linkages between systems dynamics and scale.88 Gunderson and Holling explain that their intention is to:
“ …aim for theories that explain transformational change in systems of humans and nature, … to integrate the dynamics of change across space from local to regional to global and over time from months to millennia. Traditions of science have tended to simplify by focussing on one scale.
… The second target for integration was to integrate across disciplines to better understand systems of linked ecological, economic, and institutional processes. Again, the expanding influence of human activity intensifies the coupling between people and systems of nature so that neither can be understood in isolation.”89
— Gunderson & Holling
The key points that I would like to draw your attention to are: the acknowledgement of a need for interdisciplinary integration and even more importantly the need to consider all spatial-temporal scales and their reciprocal interactions and patterns of change.
While I personally dislike some of the more prediction- and manipulation-oriented aspects of their presented theory of panarchy, which I believe are due to a lack of emphasis on the immediate participatory nature of reality, overall I agree with their conclusion that “due to the complexities of relationships, multiple solutions, and inevitable surprising outcomes, there is no fixed optimal strategy or mixture of strategies, for seeking sustainability. Instead, any optimal path follows an ever-changing landscape, contoured by slow ecological and social variables. This, sustainability entails continual learning and adaptation.”90 I also agree with Gunderson’s and Holling’s prediction that:
“There will be a paradigm shift from approaches emphasizing optimal solutions and control over limited temporal and spatial scales towards approaches emphasizing cross–scale interactions and living with true uncertainty and surprise. The emphasis should be on flexible institutions and human organizations that can build adaptive capacity in synergy with ecosystems dynamics and reward systems that respond to feedback.”91
— Gunderson & Holling
Before I try to make the relationship between holistic and Reductionist science more explicit in the next chapter, let me briefly digress into a critique of systems theory and point out some potential pitfalls on the way to a truly participatory and holistic paradigm that are related to the current tendency to equate the systems view of life with the new paradigm.
While the development of systems thinking has contributed widely to a more contextual whole systems approach to studying complex processes like communities, ecosystems and organisations and has been applied in many other areas, it still harbours attempts to control, manipulate, tune or predict the behaviour of systems from the outside or as a privileged participant.
By using the word system we are still running the danger of falling into thinking in terms of the system as a thing, independent of its parts or members, observable and manipulable from some advantageous position near important leverage points. It would therefore be better to replace the word system with the word process to give a clearer indication of the dynamic non-linear causalities involved and stress the inevitability of participation and thus responsibility. This may help to avoid obscuring our new form of understanding by falling into old paradigm habits of mechanistic thought, motivated by issues of power and aimed at control and prediction to achieve some form of competitive advantage.
Douglas Griffin points out that in modern society we have the tendency to defer responsibility to a few individuals in leadership roles and to the system as a whole, taking it for granted that responsibility could actually lie in this disembodied abstraction beyond its individual member. Most people retreat “to passive roles as victims of ‘the system,’ and of manipulative leaders” believing “our salvation lies in the actions of heroic leaders.” Griffin argues that this attitude obscures the fact that “we are all together involved in the dangerous situations that arise.”92 We are all responsible for the kind of society we live in, the science we employ and the destructive effect our current lifestyles on the environment.
With regard to the process of self-organization, the perspective of participative self- organization regards individuals not as participants in self-organisation, but considers their participation in itself to be self-organisation.
Griffin points out “there is no self-organizing whole outside the immediate, ordinary daily interactions between living bodies… sustaining and potentially transforming identity.” This leads to an “understanding of selves as emergent persons in social interaction, as an alternative to the modernist understanding of the individual as autonomous. This interaction is understood, in turn, as a complex process of relating.”93 Relations are therefore regarded as central to the manifestation of individual identity.
Clearly, the perspective of participatory self-organisation is yet another expression of the kind of dynamical thinking I discussed in the philosophical context. It focuses on the coming into being of reality out of participation in relationships.
The table (see table 1) below shows a comparison between the perspective of systemic self-organization and participatory self-organization. It highlights the major contributions that complexity theory and the study of emergence have made to transcending the limitations of the nevertheless instructive systems view of self-organisation.
Holding multiple conceptual frameworks more lightly, will help future science to evolve more quickly in a changing world and will avoid the pitfall of turning a sound scientific argument into dogma only to avoid admitting its limitations.
This perspective of participative self-organization is compatible with the epistemological and ontological framework suggested by De Quincey, which I introduced in the philosophical context and may provide another significant piece in the foundation of the currently emerging holistic science. Professor Goodwin points out that in this new science:
“There is a dramatic shift of emphasis that accompanies this reorientation that merits a new name; I call it a science of qualities. Instead of focusing on quantities, things that can be measured, we look at the unique qualities of organisms that give us a sense of their distinctive value and what it means to seek quality in life.”95
… “A science of qualities is a science of holistic emergent order that in no sense ignores quantities, but sees them as conditioning rather than as determinative aspects of emergent process. It also resonates with another myth, that of creation out of chaos, that is virtually universal and so connects much more directly with the values of other cultures, particularly the indigenous ones that have so much to tell about the qualities that we are losing — health and balance with the environment.”96
— Brian Goodwin
[Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. It addresses some of the root causes of our current crises of unsustainability. If you are interested in the references you can find them here. The research I did for my masters thesis directly informed my 2006 PhD thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ (2006), and after 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation, I published Designing Regenerative Cultures with Triarchy Press in May 2016.]