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A Holistic Multi-Perspective as Sustainable Meta-design

We face an uncertain future unless we apply holistic thinking as an integral part of our lives, from childhood onwards. Aspects of holistic thinking have been present in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophies and religions. Many modern developments in holistic philosophy, together with new paradigms in physics, biology, psychology, psychical research and parascience, have made important contributions. The stage is now being set for important unifications of philosophy, conceptual frameworks, and knowledge that will provide the basis for a new holistic practical philosophy. — Burrows et al., 1991, p.359

The holistic perspective that finds an expression in holistic science and complexity theory critically influences the arguments put forward in this thesis [Design for Human and Planetary Health, Wahl, 2006]. It tries to apply such a holistic perspective to notions of health-generating, ecological, and natural design as practical and timely approaches to creating sustainable societies [and regenerative cultures].

Many aspect of this holistic perspective have previously been expressed in indigenous and traditional worldviews, as well as the ancient wisdom traditions. Yet there is a distinction to be made between a holistic perspective that includes the insights gained from centuries of reductionism and dualistic rationalism into a wider participatory worldview and traditional participatory worldviews. To put it simply, the holistic perspective advocated in this thesis acknowledges that both either-or (dualist) and both-and (non-dual) logic informs appropriate design. Valerie Brown an her colleagues write:

The capacity for holistic thought is often considered to exist only in the artistic community. On the contrary, the ability to identify a holistic focus for our knowledge is inherently present in any individual or community; and whenever it is achieved, holistic knowledge is widely acclaimed. — Brown et al., 2005, p.134

Everybody, and every community, has the inherent ability to think holistically. It can be improved through education and practice. It is a misconception that the artistic community has any particular predisposition for this mode of thought. As someone whose academic career started with biology, behaviour, and cognitive science, I have been surprised, since I started my research in design, by the increasing tendency of research in art and design to adopt a very analytical and reductionist stance that is almost exclusively materialistically and economically motivated. Artistic practice may require imagination, but too often it follows trends and fashions more than being truly original.

Surely, a holistic approach would marry the analytical and the imaginary — the visionary with direct practical action based on the wisdom of many ways of knowing. Such a holistic approach will require the co-operation of artists and scientists in a process of learning from each other. A truly holistic perspective would be an emergent property of such a fruitful collaboration.

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

This thesis sketches the dimensions and outlines of such a holistic perspective. It assembles a broad puzzle of the conceptual contributories to the emerging participatory, integral and holistic worldview. But since design is foremost about practice, my aim is also to offer a range of examples of how such a worldview would be expressed through practical application (see particularly chapters 3–5).

The Sufi tale of the 6 Blind Men and the Elephant illustrates well why we particular perspectives will always come with a blind spot (source), this image was not used in the 2006 PhD thesis this excerpt is taken from.

I do so in full awareness of the inherent limitations of such an attempt and acknowledge that such a map will always fall short off describing the richness of quality and intricacy of detail of the territory it refers to. Nevertheless, as the holistic thinker Michael Polanyi, who was professor for both physical chemistry and social science, has pointed out: “all particulars become meaningless if we lose sight of the pattern which they jointly constitute” (in Goldsmith, 1996, p.20).

This thesis re-contextualizes design within the wider meaning of this pattern. It is the pattern Bateson called the “pattern that connects.” Natural design theory responds to a challenge posed by E.F. Schumacher: “Our task is to look at the world and see it whole” (Schumacher, 1977, p.24). The theory informing the natural design movement (see chapter 3) is based on a holistic and participatory worldview and explores how this worldview would inform practical sustainable design solutions. This work outlines a holistic worldview as a meta-design principle and explores its practical expressions as a remedy for the systemic ills that have developed out the past centuries dominated by reductionism.

We may judge a philosophy by its fruits. The reductionistic-mechanistic-materialistic outlook has fostered numerous dichotomies, schisms, fragmentations, alienations: alienation from self (…spiritual vacuum) and hence from others as well, alienation from nature …, the dichotomy between knowledge and values, between ends and means, between mind and matter, between the universe of matter and the universe of life, between the sciences and the humanities, between rich and poor, between industrialized countries and what is called the third world, between present and future generations.

… Since science’s success and prestige are enormous, the mechanistic worldview associated with its nineteenth century formulations commended itself to the world of industry and business, as well as culture at large. The image of a blind mechanical world, and of ourselves as computers, inevitably underlies the normative practice of seeking personal advantage and letting the chips fall where they may.

The emphasis on individualism and competitiveness, on the part alike of individuals, business enterprises, communities, and nations, has been part and parcel of the Western-inspired scientific-industrial culture. It probably largely fuelled the undeniable energy and accomplishments of industrialism. Yet, and this is the point, it has had a serious downside because the pursuit of personal advantage and the emphasis of individualism have been embraced as primary values, while the higher, less egoistic aspects of human nature and their corresponding values have been obscured.

This configuration of thought has not surprisingly led to the present ills of unbridled egotism, greed for material acquisition or power, rapacious ecological exploitation, cynicism, corruption and terrorism. — Lemkow, 1995, pp.11–12

Seen from this perspective, a holistic perspective as a philosophical foundation for human affairs and a way to transcend and include reductionism gains a critical relevance to current affairs and to humanity at the outset of the 21st century. It has to be acknowledged that reductionism, dualism, materialism and mechanistic analysis — applied within a wider holistic context — provide extremely useful tools for science, technology and design, but, if they become part of a society’s meta-design, the long-term effects are devastatingly unsustainable.

As quantity-focussed, utilitarian tools for thought, these epistemologies have to be embedded within a wider participatory worldview described by a holistic perspective in order not to marginalize qualities, ethics (communitarian and cooperative values) and imaginary, direct ways of knowing, as well as spirituality and the sacred. All of which inform appropriate participation and thus sustainability.

The principle of dynamic wholeness and interconnectedness, of the ultimate unity between the material and the non-material aspects of existence, is not something new in humanity’s attempts to make sense of the world in which we participate. It has been present in the worldview of many traditional cultures and documented in ancient Hermetic texts and alchemical literature, as well as by some Greek philosophers, for example Heraclitus, Parmenides and Empedocles (see Kingsley, 2003). It is a core element of what Aldous Huxley documented in his seminal book The Perennial Philosophy. The first paragraph of which reads:

Philosophia perennis — the phrase was coined by Liebniz; but the thing — the metaphysics that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or identical with divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thing is immemorial and universal. — Huxley, 1946, p.1

In her thorough review of holistic thought in science, religion and society, published as The Wholeness Principle, Anna Lemkow suggests that the holistic perspective of the perennial philosophy is based on the understanding of the fundamental unity of all life. It postulates: “the Absolute transcends all apparent separateness.” Most ancient wisdom tradition seem to agree that this Absolute “is indescribable, ineffable and unknowable” (Lemkow, 1995, p.23).

Nevertheless, a holistic perspective that recognizes the fundamental unity of all there is can serve as an integrative principle by which we can make sense of the diversity of viewpoints that arise when individual agents reflect on their own participation in this unity.

In the Eastern knowledge traditions non-duality, the ultimate unity of the knower and the known, have been explored through meditative practices for many millennia. The major non-dual wisdom traditions are the Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism. The philosopher David Loy provides a very insightful exploration of non-duality in Eastern thought (see Loy, 1997), a further exploration of which would go beyond the scope of this doctoral thesis. Likewise, Fritjof Capra (1991) and Ken Wilber (1979) offer insightful explorations of how the non-dual perspective has re-emerged in Western thought with the discoveries and theories of early 20th century physics.

Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind speaks of a “constantly growing collective impetus in the Western mind to articulate a holistic and participatory worldview”(Tarnas, 1996, p.440) and identifies some of its early expressions over the course of 2500 years of Western intellectual history from ancient Greece to modernity.

The term holism was coined in 1926 by the South African scientist, philosopher and statesman, Jan Christian Smuts. He was among the first to point out “that the biosphere consists of nothing but wholes that are both partly autonomous and partly dependent upon or subsidiary to greater wholes” (Lemkow, 1995, p.100). In his book Holism and Evolution, Smuts defined the term holism as “the tendency, as in nature, to form connected wholes” (in Brown et al., 2005, p.135).

Among the early supporters of holism was Sir Patrick Geddes, who called it “a serious contribution towards the upbuilding of a new constructive worldview,” and agreed with Smuts opinion that “in the last resort a civilization depends on its general ideas” (Thomson & Geddes, 1931, p.1114). Geddes was keenly aware of the role of ideas as organizing principles and education as a means to facilitate cultural evolution.

He recognized the holistic perspective as appropriate meta-design for a culture of appropriate participation. In his last book, written with Sir Arthur Thomson and entitled Life — Outlines of General Biology, Geddes dedicated an entire chapter to commenting on the significance of Smuts propositions. He highlights the following quotations from Holism and Evolution:

If the soul of our civilization is to be saved we shall have to find new and fuller expression for the great saving unities — the unity of reality in all its range, the unity of life in all its form, the unity of ideas throughout human civilization, and the unity of man’s spirit with the mysteries of the Cosmos … evolution is nothing but the gradual development and stratification of progressive series of wholes, stretching from the inorganic beginnings to the highest levels of spiritual creation … the old fixed concepts and contours of thought are breaking down …

Holism is a process of creative synthesis; the resulting wholes are not static, but dynamic, evolutionary, and creative. …We are out of the bonds of the old crude mechanical ideas, and we enter an altogether new zone of ideas and categories… the holism in Nature is very close to us, and a real support in all our striving towards betterment. — Jan Christian Smuts (in Thomson & Geddes, 1931, pp.1114–1116).

Geddes, who’s significance in the emergence of the natural design movement I will explore in more detail in chapter three, was among the first to argue for a more “synoptic outlook” in science that would try to “take into account all the order of facts — such as matter, life and mind” and seek “to see things whole” (Thomson & Geddes, 1931, p.1114). He believed that “the analytical scientific outlook is giving place to the synthetic and philosophical,” since “it has become clear that each science by itself is bound, by the nature of its methods, to be partial and abstract, fishing in the sea of reality with its own particular kind of net, and necessarily missing much that is there.” Geddes described and called for a “compulsory retreat from an extreme mechanistic position,” and describes the universe as “a vibrant web of inter-relations”.

Geddes believed: “The distinctiveness of matter, life and mind (cosmosphere, biosphere, and sociosphere) remains; but science is getting nearer the underlying continuity.” Geddes explains the holistic relationship between an organism and its environment in these words: “while a living creature answers back to a stimulus, the real cause of the response is not the excitant but the whole;” and emphasizes that “this transforms our concept of causality” (Thomson & Geddes, 1931, p.1115). It is absolutely remarkable to observe the analogies between Geddes’ holistic view in the early 1930s and the concept of emergence in modern complexity theory (see subchapter five). Geddes’ discussion of holism concludes:

The word Holism is sometimes used by Smuts to denote a world outlook, and sometimes to express a tendency deep in the nature of things. In this second sense Holism is the ultimate synthetic, ordering, organising, regulative tendency in the universe which accounts for all the structural groupings and syntheses in it, from the atom and the physico-chemical structures, through the cell and organisms, through mind in animals, to personality in man. — Thomson & Geddes, 1931, p.1116

Smuts’ book on holism and Thomson’s and Geddes’ book on biology were expressions of an intellectual current at the turn of the nineteenth century and during the early 20th century that first attempted to formulate a modern holistic perspective. I have already discussed how physicists like Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and others attempted such a formulation around the same time (see subchapter four above). Schrödinger wrote:

You can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you… As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth a new to new striving and suffering. And not merely some ‘some day’: now, today, every day she brings you forth, not once but a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now, the present is the only thing that has no end. — Erwin Schrödinger (in Wilber, 1979, p.59)

Aspects of the emerging holistic understanding are also found in the biology of D’Arcy Thompson (see subchapter four) and C.H. Waddington, the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, the monism of Ernst Häckel (the founder of ecology), and the vitalist ideas of Henrí Bergson, to name just some examples.

Vladimir Verdansky, an early 20th century Russian scientist considered the term life as distinct from other matter and energy as misleading. He preferred to speak of living matter, and described life as a “green fire” and humans as “children of the sun — part of the Earth-solar system” (Sagan & Schneider, 2000, p.124). This poetically expressed view is echoed almost a century later by many respected scientists (see subchapter four). The biologist Harold Morowitz believes that “life is a property of planets rather than of individual organisms” and explains:

Sustained life is a property of an ecological system rather than a single organism or species. Traditional biology has tended to concentrate attention on individual organisms rather than on the biological continuum. The origin of life is thus looked for as unique event in which an organism arises from the surrounding milieu. A more ecologically balanced point of view would examine the proto-ecological cycles and subsequent chemical systems that must have developed and flourished while objects resembling organisms appeared. — Harold Morowitz (in Capra, 2002, p.5)

The philosophical perspective of holism and the concept of the unity of life have developed in unison. The integrative power of the holistic perspectives unites aspects of physics, chemistry, biology and ecology, as well as cognitive science, and psychology with traditional knowledge, ancient wisdom and indigenous epistemologies. The physicist David Bohm also addressed the issue of the immanence of life in matter in the context of a holistic perspective:

As the plant is formed, maintained and dissolved by the exchange of matter and energy with its environment, at which point can we say that there is a sharp distinction between what is alive and what is not? Clearly, a molecule of carbon dioxide that crosses the cell boundary into a leaf does not suddenly ‘come alive’ nor does a molecule of oxygen suddenly die when it is released into the atmosphere. Rather life itself has to be regarded as belonging in some sense to a totality, including plant and environment. It may indeed be said that life is enfolded in the totality and that, even when it is not manifest, it is somehow ‘implicit’ in what we generally call a situation in which there is no life. — Bohm, 1983, p.194

Arthur Koestler tried to provide a new terminology for holistic thinking that overcomes the dualistic mutually exclusive definition of the words ‘whole’ and ‘part.’ He focussed on the fact that within the whole that contains everything, there are many wholes that are simultaneously parts of larger wholes. Koestler referred to this property of parts — being both holes and parts — as the Janus Effect (after the ancient Roman deity Janus, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions); and regarded it as “a fundamental characteristic of all sub-wholes in all types of hierarchies.”

Koestler was dissatisfied with the fact that “there is no satisfactory word in our vocabulary to refer to these Janus-faced entities” since sub-whole, sub-structure and sub- system did not properly indicate the relationship of simultaneous independence and interdependence. He therefore proposed the term holon, “from the Greek holos = whole, with the suffix on which, as in proton or neutron, suggests a particle or part” (Koestler, 1989, p.48).

Wholes and parts cannot exist by themselves either at a biological or social level. What we find are intermediary structures on a series of levels in ascending order of complexity, each of which has two faces looking in opposite directions; the face turned towards the lower levels is that of an autonomous whole, the one turned upward that of a dependent part. — Arthur Koestler (in Goldsmith, 1996, p.236)

I have already discussed how modern holistic approaches to science are now returning to an understanding of the fundamental unity of living and knowing (e.g. Maturana & Varela, 1987) and mind and matter (e.g. Bateson, 1972). Reason and Goodwin explain: “The principle of holism argues that there are no privileged parts, no primary causes, no blueprints which define the emergent order” (1999, p.287). Goodwin argues:

The new biology of complexity and emergent properties shows just how limited and aberrant is a reductionist view of life, and how inappropriate is a relationship to nature based on control and manipulation. — Goodwin, 1999a, p.9

During the course of almost a century, we have been witnessing the emergence of a fundamentally participatory picture of reality that “turns out to be, in general, holistic, unpredictable and creative” (Goodwin, 2001, p.42).

The physicist Arthur Zajonc suggest that we have to expand our foundation or inquiry and develop a holistic epistemology “that is broad enough to include on the one hand a reinterpreted conventional science, but also open enough to include a science of qualities and beyond the science of qualities to a science of spirit — a science of the contemplative (Zajonc, 2002).

The ecological and spiritual activist Satish Kumar, co-founder of Schumacher College, believes that “unless we are able to heal the rift between science and spirituality, and develop a holistic perspective of life, peace will remain a distant dream (Kumar, 2002).

All points of view coalesce in a new kind of meta-design that would facilitate the emergence of higher levels of human consciousness; help people to freely explore the entire dynamic spiral of human awareness; and contribute to the transformation towards a more sustainable society.

Holism as an integrative philosophy offers a meaningful framework to integrate the various aspects of human existence. Rather than being a specific worldview that excludes other perspectives, it transcends and includes them in a flexible and inclusive meta-worldview that honours difference and diversity while acknowledging fundamental unity and interdependence.

William Bloom, founder of the Holism Information Network has recently offered a ‘Holistic Manifesto’ as one possible formulation of the emerging holistic vision (see below). It is an interesting exercise of the faculty of imagination to contemplate what a culture manifesting a holistic meta-worldview through all its products, processes and institutions would actually look like. In doing so we may find ourselves envisioning a sustainable civilization. As meta-design, the holistic and participatory worldview provides the most up-stream formulation of a culture of appropriate participation and sustainability.

A Holistic Manifesto

(Reproduced from Bloom, 2004, pp.213–214)

We live in a period of remarkable change out of which a new spirituality is emerging:

Open-Hearted: Holism is an open-hearted and open-mined approach to spirituality, religion and the meaning of life.

Diverse: Holism welcomes and celebrates diversity of culture and belief.

Beautiful Mystery: Holism honours the beauty, power and mystery of nature, the universe and all life.

Connected Development: Holism recognizes that all life is connected, interdependent and developing to fulfil its potential.

Ethics: Holism supports the core morality of all faiths, combined with the insights of ecology and psychology: Love, Support and Protect all beings.

Daily Living: Holism develops the core of all spiritual traditions:

  • Connect with the wonder, power and beauty of all life.
  • Develop compassionate self-reflection and wise self-development.
  • Be of active service to the community of life.
  • Action: Holism is dedicated to the creation of: Social Justice — World Peace — Environmental Harmony –Development–Prosperityand Fulfilment for All.
  • In Short: All life is sacred, interdependent and growing to fulfil its potential. Love, Support and Protect all beings. Connect — Develop — Serve.

Clearly, a society built on a holistic worldview would be rather different from how Anna Lemkow described our current society built on a reductionist/dualist/mechanist worldview. Would it not be too easy to dismiss such contemplations as utopian idealism? Are the challenges we are now facing on a planetary scale not so great that we do need a fundamental reorientation?

This thesis is based on an understanding of design as an expression of intention in and through relationship and interaction. It explores how a holistic and participatory worldview would change the intentions behind design and thus lead to more sustainable design solutions across all scales. The holistic perspective is used as a synoptic tool for intellectual integration, as an underlying relational philosophy and spirituality, and as an explanatory principle. Relationships and interactions are primary aspects of holism. They are also primary aspects of design, meaning, life and spirituality. William Bloom writes:

Holism, then, might best be described as a relational spirituality. It is all about relationships — with friends and strangers, with ‘God’ and nature, with our own bodies and core, with diversity and novelty. Interdependence and connection are both precisely to do with relationship. — Bloom, 2004, p.226

I personally prefer to use terms like holistic perspective or worldview, rather than the term holism, since historically most ‘-isms’ led to schisms. It is crucial to avoid a dualistic understanding of holism that builds up new dichotomies.

The core values of the holistic perspective are found in all of the world’s religions. Therefore a more holistic worldview could help to heal religious and political schisms and dichotomies without forcing anybody to give up their basic religious, spiritual or atheistic outlook. A truly non-dual holistic understanding integrates and celebrates diversity. In 1991, Brian Burrows et al. published Into the 21st Century — A Handbook for a Sustainable Future. The book identifies the spread of the ability to think holistically as a key factor in the shift towards sustainability:

There have been significant trends towards holistic thinking in philosophy and science; there have been signs of a major paradigm shift in human affairs. The new economics, new ecology, new politics, new social and cultural thinking, new approaches in education, and the rapid development of social networking…are all part of that shift. This emerging broad unified outlook is based on increased consciousness and awareness, seeks inner development of human potential, has an altruistic cooperative ethic, and expresses genuine concern for the environment and the planet. …The new holistic social paradigm has the potential to provide the basis for healing mankind and healing the planet, in preparation for the next stage of human and planetary evolution. — Burrows, 1991, p.227

Personally, I have come to think of planet Earth as an ark of life adrift in the vast ocean of the universe. Human action — bad design — some of it intentional, some of it unintentional, has pushed the aging boat to a point where we have to question its sea-worthiness. Humanity is now faced with the decision to continue its petty struggles for power and its violent partitioning of the bountiful treasures on board, or to literally realize we are all in the same boat. More than that, we are that boat along with the community of life in which we participate. It is time to pull together and assume responsibility for our actions on board the trusty old vessel.

Political, religious and economic disagreements are a waste of important time and energy at a point where the real task at hand is to restore the Earth and with it give life to a new humanity — worthy of its name. Learning to think holistically will help us to give meaning and justification to a species arrogant enough to call itself Homo sapiens sapiens before it learned the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Burrows et al. identified a series of obstacles to holistic thinking. These are summarized below.

The Main Obstacles to Holistic Thinking

(after Burrows et al., 1991, pp.270–271)

  • The materialistic and mechanistic worldview provides a very limited understanding of the nature of life and the significance of the whole human being.
  • The Reductionist methodology of analysis of individual parts in isolation that has contributed to many scientific discoveries and technological inventions, needs to be embedded in a more holistic perspective based on synthesis, context and inter-relation.
  • The cult of the expert that values highly trained specialists over broadly educated generalists, has lead to some successes, but also has severe limitations in situations where several different problems interact and where interdisciplinary crossfertilisation is needed.
  • Piecemeal thinking leading to piecemeal solutions dominant es contemporary management and decision making, as a result of the cult of the expert.
  • Short-term thinking makes us oblivious to the long-term dynamics of mutual interaction and co-evolution between natural and cultural processes, as many patterns of events are not understood as whole processes unfolding over different time-scales.
  • The non-holistic nature of modern education has left many, if not most, people with conceptual frameworks that are too narrow to allow holistic thinking.

Holistic thinking — awareness of the epistemological and ontological foundations of the worldviews we employ — the ability to shift between diverse perspectives and integrate them based on a set of shared values, all of this will critically influence the intentions behind design in the 21st century. The transition towards sustainability is at one and the same time an unprecedented challenge and an enormous creative opportunity — nothing less than what David Orr called “remaking the human presence in the world” (Orr, 2002).

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]




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Daniel Christian Wahl

Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

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