Holism in science

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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 aims to gain understanding of systems by dividing them into smaller composing elements and gaining understanding of the system through understanding their elemental properties. The holism-reductionism dichotomy is often evident in conflicting interpretations of experimental findings and in setting priorities for future research.

Overview[edit]

Holism in science is an approach to research that emphasizes the study of complex systems.[citation needed] Two central aspects are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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[who?] 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.[original research?]

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 Nature Institute, a research institute in holistic science, describes the necessity for Holism in science as follows

Modern science has increasingly moved out of nature and into the laboratory, driven by a desire to find an underlying mechanistic basis of life. Despite all its success, this approach is one-sided and urgently calls for a counterbalancing movement toward nature. Only if we find ways of transforming our propensity to view and control nature in terms of parts and mechanisms, will we be able to see, value, and protect the integrity of nature and the interconnectedness of all things. This demands a contextual way of seeing." "About the Nature Institute". Archived from the original on November 23, 2010. Retrieved December 23, 2010. 

The Santa Fe Institute, a center of holistic scientific research[dubious ] 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". Archived from the original on January 15, 2006. Retrieved January 22, 2006. 

Topics in Holism in science[edit]

Alternative to reductionism[edit]

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.

Though considered by some[who?] as alternative, holistic methods are not generally at odds with the classical scientific method.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] For example gestalt psychology grew out of early experimental psychology.[improper synthesis?] 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.

Opposing views[edit]

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?"

One of the reasons that holistic science attracts supporters is that it seems to offer a progressive, 'socio-ecological' view of the world, but Alan Marshall's book The Unity of Nature offers evidence to the contrary; suggesting holism in science is not 'ecological' or 'socially-responsive' at all, but regressive and repressive.

Applications of holism in science[edit]

Some scientific disciplines are affected by the holistic paradigm.

Cognitive science[edit]

The field of cognitive science, or the study of mind and intelligence has some examples for holistic approaches. These include Unified Theory of Cognition[improper synthesis?] (Allen Newell, e.g. Soar, ACT-R as models) 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 paradigm.[clarification needed]

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).

Quantum physics[edit]

In the standard Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics there is a holism of the measurement situation,[improper synthesis?] 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. The observer-measurement relation is an active area of research today: see Quantum decoherence, Quantum Zeno effect and Measurement problem.

In the holistic approach of David Bohm, any collection of quantum objects constitutes an indivisible whole within an implicate and explicate order.[1][2]

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: "ultimately, the entire universe (with all its 'particles,' including those constituting human beings, their laboratories, observing instruments, etc) has to be understood as a single undivided whole, in which analysis into separately and independently existent parts has no fundamental status." [3]

Biology[edit]

Holistic science sometimes asks different questions than a strictly analytic science[clarification needed] — as is exemplified by Goethe in the following passage:

We conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life; thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically perfect. Viewed from within, no part of the animal is a useless or arbitrary product of the formative impulse (as so often thought). Externally, some parts may seem useless because the inner coherence of the animal nature has given them this form without regard to outer circumstance. Thus…[not] the question, What are they for? but rather, Where do they come from? (Goethe, Scientific Studies, Suhrkamp ed., vol 12, p. 121; trans. Douglas Miller)

Other examples[edit]

  • 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. [1] (URL accessed on 28 November 2006)
  • In system dynamics modeling, a field that originated at MIT, a holistic controlling paradigm organizes scientific method,[clarification needed] 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. [2]
  • Another example of how holistic and reductionist science can be mutually supportive and cooperative is free-choice profiling.[citation needed]
  • As an example of interdisciplinary holistic research. Joe L. Kincheloe, in his work in critical pedagogy, has employed complexity and holism in science to overcome reductionism.[citation needed]

The study of holism in science[edit]

Writers on holistic science[edit]

Goethe, who developed a holistic methodology outlines this method in the essay, The experiment as mediator between subject and object (1772). In the Kurschner edition of Goethe's works, the science editor, Rudolf Steiner, presents Goethe's approach to science as phenomenological, and lays the groundwork for a holistic epistemology in the books The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception[4] and Goethe's World View,.[5]

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)
  • 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
  • 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
  • Richard Lewontin biologist supporting the theory of group selection and that evolutionary theory must include the feedback loop where the organism actively creates its own ecological niche.
  • James Lovelock, scientist and writer
  • Alan Marshall, who wrote at great length about all of those listed here in his 2002 book titled 'The Unity of Nature' (Imperial College Press).
  • Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela Chilean biologists which developed the concept of autopoiesis
  • Ilya Prigogine, Belgian physicist, chemist, and writer, 1977 Nobel laureate in chemistry
  • Alexander Rosenberg philosopher of science
  • Rolf Sattler, biologist, author of Biophilosophy: Analytic and Holistic Perspectives and other publications on holism.
  • Francisco Varela (1946–2001), Chilean biologist
  • Alfred North Whitehead mathematician, physicist, and philosopher
  • Stephen Wolfram, author of A New Kind of Science
  • Robin Wilding, author of " Holistic Science- A Wider Landscape" which is a series of essays including the origins of order.
  • F. David Peat, holistic physicist and author

Holistic science in academe[edit]

Perhaps due to the inherent multidisciplinary nature of holistic science, academic institutions have been slow to come forward with degree programs for it.[original research?] 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 in Sheffield.

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, the Scientific and Medical Network (in Europe), the Pari Center for New Learning (in Italy), and the System Dynamics Society in Albany, New York. There is also the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California. Brazil has its Willis Harman House in São Paulo.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Richard Healey: Holism and Nonseparability in Physics (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), first published July 22, 1999; substantive revision December 10, 2008, Stanford Encycopledia of Philosophy. Section: "Ontological Holism in Quantum Mechanics?" (retrieved June 3, 2011)
  2. ^ David Bohm, Basil Hiley: The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory, Routledge, 1993, ISBN 0-415-06588-7.
  3. ^ David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge, 2002, p.221
  4. ^ "The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception". Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  5. ^ "Goethe's World View". Retrieved 2008-08-28. 

References[edit]

External links[edit]