In the last several months I’ve adopted the word ‘holon’ to talk about the greater-than-systems-complexity stuff that I am developing a capacity to model in ways that integrates with details, or in construal-level theory the stuff I can understand in near mode. I think it’s worth taking a moment to explore this term and why I like it.
First, I freely admit I don’t really use the word ‘holon’ in its full original context. It’s instead just conveniently Greek for ‘whole’ and happens to match close enough to what I’m using it to point to that it works. That out of the way, let’s explore a bit what holons are by first looking at what they are not.
When it comes to modeling the world, the first way we learn to organize reality is into objects. Children start doing this as soon as they are born (and probably before), beginning a process of creating patterns of thought that allow them to think about the universe in ways more complex than stimulus/response. They develop a sense that some part of the universe can persist independent of the rest of it as a thing, so that rather than a round blob of red they see a red ball and expect the red ball to have certain properties over time.
Objects don’t capture everything, though. For example, if I’m on one side of a wall and you’re on another, and I have a red ball on my side of the wall, how do I understand what you know about the red ball on my side of the wall? If I were a very young child, say under 2 years old, I might assume you know about the red ball even if I don’t say anything about it because I am modeling the world as objects only and beyond objects have no real notion of how things work. To do more, like understand that you don’t know about the red ball on my side of the wall because you can’t see it, I have to at least be able to model relationships between objects. That is, I can think of you as an object, the wall as an object, and the ball as an object, and then put together that there is a relationship between you, the wall, and the ball that prevents you from seeing/knowing the ball exists unless I tell you about it.
This, as it happens, is the next level of complexity that develops in our thinking: object relationships. And object relationships explain a lot of what’s happening in the universe, but they don’t offer a way to integrate multiple relationships between objects as a whole. If I want to think about you, the wall, and the ball, I have to think about how you are related to the wall and how the wall is blocking your vision of the ball. This is fine when there are just a few objects in relation, but becomes overwhelmingly complex when there are more than a few objects.
Imagine you, me, and a few friends are playing a game with the red ball where we stand in a circle with our hands behind our backs. I’m “it” and you all are trying to hide the ball from me. The rules are simple: I win if I can guess correctly who is holding the ball, and you all win if you keep it hidden from me. You can do whatever you want, but one of you must be holding the ball, and I’m not allowed to peek behind you to see where the ball is.
If I’m playing this game with just one person it’s easy enough: there’s just the relationships between you, me, and the ball. With a third it’s just a little more complicated: there are the relationships between you, me and the ball; you, our friend, and the ball; and our friend, me, and the ball. But from four people onward we enter the territory where the number of objects and relationships exceeds the size of working memory and it becomes increasingly difficult to track all the relevant object relationships in the game.
The breakthrough that makes such games possible to play is to bundle up all those relationships into systems. Now I can think about the system that’s made up of many individual relationships that follow patterns so I don’t have to manage many individual details all the time and can instead focus on just some of the details when I need to work out some specifics, and can otherwise leave the rest of the objects and relationships packed-up in the system.
Systems thinking is the native adult way of thinking. We learn to think in terms of systems starting around 4 or 5, really start to develop the capacity around ages 10–12, and pretty well develop the capacity by the time we’re in our 20s. I should point out here, too, that I mean thinking of systems natively in near construal mode: we gain the ability to do this kind of thing in far construal mode much earlier but, for that reason, have a harder time applying it in real-world situations like playing games versus theoretical situations like imagining a game we might play.
Thinking of systems in near mode let’s you manage a lot of complexity. It’s a skill required by modern society to participate in even the most rudimentary ways, and failing to have the capacity is viewed as a disability that requires special dispensation to help you survive. Yet it is not the end of the complexity of world models we are capable of.
Just as children develop a capacity to model relationships between objects, adults can learn to model relationships between systems. In the system of the ball game we were playing earlier, the game’s system has a boundary constructed by the rules. It’s outside the game/system for me to peek behind my friends’ backs to see who is holding the ball, and if I do so my friends will likely call me a cheater, meaning I’ve chosen to operate in a way that’s outside the system.
And just like a young child doesn’t understand why you can’t see the ball on their side of the wall, an adult at the limits of systems thinking doesn’t understand why you would violate the system. Our words for such people (cheaters, liars, crooks, evildoers, freeloaders, rebels, etc.) all include some moralistic valuation that working outside the system is wrong.
In order to move past this adults must develop a capacity to model relationships between systems. So if the game is one system, and you are another system, now there can exist a relationship between you and the system rather than you being part of the system. And that relationship describes the interactions. So just as being on one side of the wall means you can’t see the ball, choosing not to participate in a game means you aren’t bound by its rules and are free to look behind your friends’ backs.
Again, I mean specifically here a capacity for modeling system relationships in near construal mode. Reading the above paragraph it’s easy to understand the concept in far mode, but now imagine you’re at a fancy restaurant having dinner and someone walks around the dining room picking food off everyone’s plates with their hands. If you are there and your immediate reaction is that this person is rude, that’s systems thinking. If your immediate reaction is to wonder why is this person not behaving in accordance with the rules of fine dining, that’s system relationship thinking.
At this point we’re already pretty far out on the edge of the amount of complexity most people manage in their models of the world. System relationship thinking is uncommon and takes time to develop. Adults are usually in their 30s before they master it, and many don’t until much later or never do because unlike object relationship and systems thinking, system relationship thinking isn’t normally forced onto folks by the world. Systems thinking is enough to get by most of the time, and it’s only through exposure to lots of competing systems that we are forced to come to terms with the relationships between systems.
Now we’re going to go one step beyond into holons.
Just like there may be too many object relationships to manage that force us to think in terms of systems, there may be too many system relationships to hold in working memory. When this happens, we need another way of modeling the complexity. A first approximation would be systems of systems, but this has the same problem as thinking of systems as objects of objects: it fails to capture many of the subtle interactions that go into creating a whole out of systems just as an object of objects would lack a way of thinking about the behaviors that emerge in systems. So it’s not enough to stack the complexity you already know how to manage on itself, because although it captures more it still leaves out the something extra that the previous model failed to capture.
So a holon is what you get when many systems interact and you integrate them into a single whole to manage the complexity, and holonic thinking is modeling the world in near construal mode using holons. But there’s something interesting about holons which makes their linguistic root in “whole” apt: there’s only one holon, and it encompasses everything.
Systems have boundaries. Even if we imagine the universe as a single system we still have to think in terms of what is allowed and not allowed in the system by physics. It’s unable to capture the hypothetical except as another, causally separate system, and even within itself lacks a way to address phenomena that are not yet explained by physics. These are unknowns in the system, yet they still exist in reality, so systems on their own are not enough to capture everything. But when we relate systems to one another, and then build something from those relationships, we create a new thing that can capture the complexity of all possible systems and more!
I’m of course not the first person to see or personally attempt this kind of holonic integration of the perceived world. Christian and Jewish philosophers have a concept of an incorporeal God that permeates all things. Daoist philosophers have (the) way. Secular philosophy has struggled to deal with the holon, often resulting in clunky, metaphorical pseudo-personifications of the universe.
I’m also not sure that a holon really does capture everything because I’m still piecing together this way of modeling the world myself. I’m very much still in a systems relationships mindset and still taking apart and reconstructing the way I understand the world to deal with the limitations of that. And even if I did think that, adults embedded in systems thinking feel the same way about systems, so I must be suspicious that I have a model that is able to incorporate all the details of reality into a single, large, complex pattern. And beyond even that, I’ve not even begun to deal with things outside my causal network that I literally can’t perceive, even in my imagination.
So there you have it: my current thoughts on holons, what I mean when I use the world “holon”, and how it ties in with my other thinking.