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Holism in science, or Holistic science, is an approach to research that emphasizes the study of complex systems. 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.

This practice is in contrast to a purely analytic tradition (sometimes called reductionism) which proports to understand systems by dividing them into their smallest possible or discernible elements and understanding their elemental properties alone. The holism/reductionism dichotomy is often evident in conflicting interpretations of experimental findings and in setting priorities for future research.

Features considered central to the holistic approach

The term holistic science has been used 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.

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 Santa Fe Institute, a center of holistic scientific research 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. URL accessed on January 22, 2006.

An alternative to reductionism

Some advocates of holism refer to orthodox science as reductionist science or the reductionist paradigm or greedy reductionism. This is a compact way to allude to a tendency of classical science towards the modular: that is, to break systems down into manageable parts for study.

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. For example, in the field of quantum physics, David 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.

Though considered by some as alternative, holistic methods are not generally at odds with the classical scientific method. 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. For example gestalt psychology grew out of early experimental psychology. 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.

Examples of holism in various scientific fields

Many scientific disciplines are affected by the holistic paradigm. Some of these are widely accepted parts of mainstream science, while others are variously considered to be protoscientific or even pseudoscientific.

Quantum physics

Physicist David Bohm put forward an interpretation of quantum theory that reconciles it with an idea of the universe as an undivided whole, any division of which (e.g. into observer and observed) can only be arbitrary. Despite its elegant simplicity and distinct advantages, this holistic interpretation was given at best an ambivalent reception by mainstream scientists. Recently, however (from the 1990s to the present) Bohm's reputation in the field of quantum physics has grown, though many of his holistic ideas remain in dispute.[1]

Systems biology and systems ecology

Fledgling transdisciplines which apply holistic approaches to the study of biology and ecology to gain insights into the functioning of entire biological and ecological systems (i.e. plants, animals, organisms). See Systems biology and Systems ecology articles for more information.

Chaos theory

Limits to reductionism have become apparent in recent years, most strikingly in the Mathematics of Chaos Theory, and from the work of Benoit Mandelbrot. These ideas are best known in the metaphor of the "butterfly effect"[1], first recognised by a meteorologist, Edward Norton Lorenz, who noted that his deterministic differential equations model of climate systems was unexpectedly sensitive to initial conditions. This finding was expressed famously (and variously) as implying that the flap of a butterfly's wings in a jungle in South America was enough to "cause" a hurricane on the other side of the world. This insight, that complex non-linear systems can produce inherently unpredictable behavior, seemed to set limits on the ability to "explain" complex behavior by any deterministic description, by setting limits on their "predictability" and "measurability". Subsequently, the work of Stephan Wolfram, Stuart Kaufmann and others explored how chaos can be "harnessed", by exploring how organised behaviors can arise in a structured way from complex systems, giving rise to the modern concepts of emergent behavior and self-organisation.

Complexity theory

Another area of intense holistic scientific research is complexity theory. Research in this area began in 1984 with the establishment of the Santa Fe Institute by physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and this institute remains a driving force in the field.

Cognitive science

The field of cognitive science, or the study of mind and intelligence has some examples for holistic approaches. These include Unified Theory of Cognition (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.

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).

Neural networks and artificial intelligence

Another category of holistic research consists of attempts to simulate the human brain or build systems that function along the same lines as the human brain. The field as a whole is called artificial intelligence and the subfield neural networks in particular can be considered holistic, as it is based on the assumption that connections and feedback between simple nodes arranged in a system, or network, can give rise to behavior similar to intelligent or cognition-based behavior.

Integral theory

Not a scientific field in itself, and interdisciplinary by definition, integral theory is the pursuit of knowledge through a combination of scientific and spiritual approaches. The fundamental proposition of integral theory is that both science and spirituality are legitimate domains of human experience and are both essential to an understanding of the world. Mainstream scientists, by contrast, when interpreting scientific findings typically subordinate, ignore, or deny spiritual experience. Integral theorists believe that their new approach will open new avenues of scientific inquiry in the future. Prominent integral theorists include Jean Gebser, Teilhard de Chardin, and the contemporary thinker Ken Wilber.


In addition to the wealth of complementary and alternative approaches to medicine, many of which are viewed with suspicion or even outright hostility by the mainstream medical community, orthomolecular medicine and orthomolecular psychiatry, pioneered by noted physicist and peace activist Linus Pauling, represent an alternative approach to medicine that makes greater use of laboratory testing to vary the concentration of substances normally present in the body to prevent and treat disease.

Other examples

  • 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. [2] (URL accessed on 28 November 2006)
  • Princeton University hosts a holistic science project entitled "Global Consciousness Project" that uses a network of physical random number generators to register events of global significance, testing the hypothesis that there is a collective human consciousness at work in the world. [3]
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1810 book Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) not only parted radically with the dominant Newtonian optical theories of his time, but also with the entire Enlightenment methodology of reductive science. Although the theory was not received well by scientists, Goethe — considered one of the most important intellectual figures in modern Europe — thought of his color theory as his greatest accomplishment. Holistic theorists and scientists such as Rupert Sheldrake still refer to the Goethe's color-theory as an inspiring example of holistic science. The introduction to the book lays out Goethe's unique philosophy of science.
  • In system dynamics modeling, a field that originated at MIT, a holistic controlling paradigm organizes scientific method, 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. [4]
  • Another example of how holistic and reductionist science can be mutually supportive and cooperative is free choice profiling.

Writers on holistic science

A text often referred to by writers on holistic science (and by all who recognize the existence of scientific paradigms) is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. While this book does not address holistic science directly, it is relevant because, in it Kuhn originally coined the term "scientific paradigm" and introduced the concept of opposing, or even warring, paradigms in science.

The following have written influential books which treat non-reductionist or holistic science:

  • Rachel Carson ecologist, biologist and author of Silent Spring
  • Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), French paleontologist, biologist, philosopher
  • David Bohm (1917-1992), American quantum physicist
  • Francisco Varela (1946-2001), Chilean biologist
  • Rupert Sheldrake, biologist and prolific author
  • Mae-Wan Ho, biologist
  • Richard Lewontin biologist
  • Richard Levins, biologist
  • Stephen Wolfram, author of A New Kind of Science
  • Eric Margolis of Rice University, co-author of Concepts: Core Readings (with Stephen Laurence of the University of Sheffield)
  • Ken Wilber, American philosopher, psychologist and author of The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion
  • Fred Alan Wolf, American physicist, author of Taking the Quantum Leap
  • Marc Bekoff, American biologist and cognitive ethologist, author of Species of Mind (with philosopher Colin Allen)
  • F. David Peat, physicist and writer, founder of the Pari Center for New Learning
  • Murray Gell-Mann, physicist and Nobel laureate, wrote The Quark and the Jaguar, Adventures in the Simple and the Complex on complexity
  • 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
  • Willis Harman, former President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences
  • Humberto Maturana, Chilean biologist and philosopher
  • Ilya Prigogine, Belgian physicist, chemist, and writer, 1977 Nobel laureate in chemistry
  • Tim Reid, Dialectical Materialist Maoist Philosopher, wrote Forward With Revolutionary
  • Jan Smuts, Author of Holism And Evolution
  • Laurence W. Evans, Author of Nature's Holism that looks at holism through the coevolutionary process
  • Karl Marx, author of Das Kapital, an holistic analysis of capitalism

Holistic science in academe

Perhaps due to the inherent multidisciplinary nature of holistic science, academic institutions have been slow to come forward with degree programs for it. 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 (a major center of holistic scientific research in the U.S.), the Scientific and Medical Network (in Europe), the Pari Center for New Learning (in Italy), and the System Dynamics Society in Albany, New York. The VERITAS Research Program, affiliated with the University of Arizona, uses holistic approaches to test the existence of an afterlife. There is also the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California. Brazil has its Willis Harman House in São Paulo.

Opposing views

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 scientifically-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?"


See also

Articles related to the classification of scientific endeavours


Further reading

  • Bunge.M., Demarcating Science from Pseudoscience. Fundamenta Scientiae, 1982, Vo. 3, No. 3/4, pg. 369-88
  • Lilienfeld,S.O. et al. (Eds.): Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. New York / London 2003
  • 1 Olival Freire Jr., Science and exile: David Bohm, the hot times of the Cold War, and his struggle for a new interpretation of quantum mechanics (Online article)
  • 2 Definition of System Dynamics and Systems Thinking on System Dynamics Society homepage
  • Stenger.V.J., (1999) The Physics of 'Alternative Medicine'. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine Spring/Summer 1999 Volume 3 ~ Number 1

External links

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