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Beyond the Whole
by Jeffrey Sax
April 17th, 2001
The Ways of Science
Scientists have different opinions on what the purpose of science is. A category
known as instrumentalists believe science is simply a useful tool to
make predictions. No one can claim to truly understand the nature of anything.
The best we can do is to build models and make predictions. If the predictions
turn out right, they are happy.
Most engineers use science in this practical way: they are satisfied if the
bridge they have designed doesn't collapse. Most scientists want more:
they want to understand the world.
Reductionism is a way of understanding reality in terms of ever-smaller basic
building blocks. An example of this method is the theory of the structure of
molecules. The fact that a water molecule is made up of one oxygen atom and two
hydrogen atoms can be explained in terms of the properties of the 'orbits' of
the electrons of the atoms.
Holistic or 'systems' approaches look at how parts work together to form wholes
and pay particular attention to the 'emergent' properties that only appear on
the level of the whole. An example of an emergent property is the speed of a
car. It doesn't make much sense to speak of the speed of the windscreen or the
screws or the steering wheel. This property depends on the whole car.
Unfortunately, most holistic approaches are little more than an acknowledgement
of the fact that most wholes are more than the sum of their parts. They
are little more than adornments of reductionism: you can still separate the
whole nicely into its parts, even though you will lose some functionality when
you do so. Few people have come close to taking into account the 'unbroken
wholeness' that is suggested by both quantum physics and experiences of cosmic
More recently we have seen the arrival of a 'holographic' paradigm. Here, every
part contains a holographic image of the whole with which it is inextricably
linked. This is indeed a nice metaphor to illustrate the unbroken wholeness,
but it is a long way from explaining how this would actually work. David Bohm
probably made the best effort. He was a man far ahead of his time. His concepts
of order have not been widely appreciated to their full depth. He could have
achieved a lot more had he not become entangled in his own particular
interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Even in the most whole theories, however, we find a type of reductionism that is
consistently overlooked and accepted without question.
Greek philosophy is widely regarded as the original basis from which much of
today's science has evolved. One of the most influential concepts has been
Plato's world of ideas or forms. Plato divided the Kosmos up into two worlds.
One, the visible world, is the world of our experience, what we see and hear.
It is a world of change and uncertainty. The other, the intelligible world,
contains the eternal (ideal) 'forms' or 'ideas' of things.
This world of ideas is the primary world. The products of our reasoning can be
found in it. The visible world is merely the imperfect and ever-changing
manifestation of the world of ideas.
This relationship between the world of ideas and the world of experience has
been the blueprint for the basic scientific method. Science builds models of
reality in terms of objects from the world of ideas. These objects are
idealizations of what we find in the world of experience.
This also means that objects in the real world are reduced to relatively flat
concepts in the theory. The role or function of an object in the theory is laid
out in a very specific definition within the model, and subject only to
the dynamics and interactions allowed by the model.
Definitions are necessarily generalizations. They reduce any object to its
'essence.' Particles don't have identity in quantum physics. You can substitute
one electron for another and nothing will change. The 'humans' used in models
of disease don't have names. They don't have thoughts of feelings. They have
only those properties which are needed to make the model work.
In our normal, everyday lives, we don't think in terms of idealized forms. When
I ask you to think about the concept of 'a horse,' most likely you will first
have an image of some horse in your mind, or a sound, or some memory. You may
see or think of some kind of dictionary definition ("a large solid-hoofed
herbivorous mammal (Equus caballus, family Equidae, the horse family)
domesticated since a prehistoric period and used as a beast of burden, a draft
animal, or for riding" - from Merriam-Webster's Online) but it is very
This in some ways unnatural way of thinking, usually called "rational thought"
lies at the root of why science and spirituality appear to be two entirely
different qualities of being. The idealizations used in science cut away all
the specifics and the details of an object. But in doing so, they cut away what
may be the real essence of any concept: the enormous, infinite variety and
diversity of its expressions.
The dominant paradigm in Western science has always been materialism - the
notion that everything, including our thoughts and our consciousness, has its
basis in the material world. Its counterpart idealism (or idea-ism), which
states that everything, including the material world, has its basis in mental
phenomena or consciousness, has had much less attention. At best, the mental
was put on an equal footing with the material in some form of dualism.
The main reason idealism has had such a hard time is that our idea of an idea
has been very limited. Ideas are thought of as simple things: a book, a horse,
a thought, a human being... In the rational mode of thinking, all these ideas
are like the faded image of an old painting - the richness of its colors, its
depth, its vitality have faded away long ago. Labels have taken the place of
the original, and were then mistaken for the original.
What I propose is a restoration of ideas and concepts in our thinking to their
original richness. When you think of a horse, you think of all its possible
variations. You may well see the image change continuously before your inner
eyes, morphing from one form to another, from one color to another. You may see
a horse running free in nature, resting in a stable, or jumping fences. You may
see the rider wearing different outfits. You may see the horse in battle, or
working the land. All these images are a part of your concept of a horse.
I propose an end to the dualism between the world of eternal forms and the real
world. The world of experience is not made up of imperfect manifestations of
'perfect' ideas. The ideas are all their manifestations, in all possible
worlds, in all possible situations, in all possible relationships, in all
'Nailness' is as much about being "a slender usually pointed and headed fastener
designed to be pounded in" as with being a nail in your coffin, or the feeling
of being pounded by a hammer, the cursing of the carpenter hitting his finger
instead of the nail, the bed it helps hold together on which two people make
love, and even all those situations where someone said something so much to the
point that "they hit the nail on the head."
This expanded idea of an idea expresses the "unbroken wholeness" that the
holographic metaphor tries to capture. You favorite cup is forever connected
with the cup Socrates drank his poison from, or that cup you broke as a child
which made your mother angry. It is for ever connected to someone in the
wilderness 'cupping' their hands to drink water from the river - any time,
anywhere. They are all directly connected as expressions of the 'idea' of a
They are all connected to... the Holy Grail!