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. Systems are approached as coherent wholes whose component parts are best understood in context and in relation to one another and to the whole. 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.


Two central aspects of Holism 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.

According to skeptics, the phrase "holistic science" is often misused by pseudosciences, fields that do 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.

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 said 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]


Holistic science is naturally suited to subjects such as ecology, biology, physics and the social sciences, where complex, non-linear interactions are the norm (Harding 2009). These are systems where emergent properties arise at the level of the whole that cannot be predicted by focusing on the parts alone (Harding 2009), which may make mainstream, reductionist science ill-equipped to provide understanding beyond a certain level. This principle of emergence in complex systems is often captured in the phrase ′the whole is greater than the sum of its parts′. Living organisms are an example: no knowledge of all the chemical and physical properties of matter can explain or predict the functioning of living organisms. The same happens in complex social human systems, where detailed understanding of individual behaviour cannot predict the behaviour of the group, which emerges at the level of the collective. The phenomenon of emergence may impose a theoretical limit on knowledge available through reductionist methodology (Harding 2009), arguably making complex systems natural subjects for holistic approaches.

Degree programs[edit]

Schumacher College in the UK, offers an MSc degree program in Holistic Science

See also[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 Encyclopedia 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


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