Sunday, April 29, 2007

Brian Goodwin, Introducing holistic science


Introducing holistic science.

from Resurgence issue 216

SEVERAL ARTICLES IN this issue of Resurgence focus on a development in science that is of deep significance for the way we understand the world and how we behave in it. Many of the contributors are people who have gone through the process of struggling with the separation of facts and values, the distinction between what is called objective and subjective knowledge in science, and have found it wanting for a variety of reasons.

When Galileo and Descartes laid the foundation of scientific method in the sixteenth century, they considered that the state of mind of the experimenter was irrelevant for the experimental study of nature, which required a dispassionate observer who submitted to the discipline of scientific observation. Each area of scientific study required special ways of precise measurement and so the different 'disciplines' of science were born, fragmenting it into the various subjects that make up our university science departments today.

This was an extremely successful strategy in gaining precise knowledge about the natural world, which could then be used to control nature in many different ways. In fact, science adopted the strategy of control and prediction of natural processes, so that there is an intimate relationship between scientific knowledge and its technological applications. This has given us an extraordinary diversity of means to turn nature to our advantage: radio, television and the Internet for communication; bicycles, trains, cars and aeroplanes for travel; drugs, surgery and gene manipulation to control disease and repair damaged parts, to mention but a few. There can be no denying the extraordinary benefits that have come from this cultural adventure into ways of improving the lot of humans on this planet.

However, the limitations of this approach to understanding nature are now becoming all too obvious. We are faced with a variety of crises, in health, community life, the environment, climate, economics and human organisations. These share a number of distinctive characteristics: they are complex processes that do not respond predictably to attempts at manipulation and control. So it seems that it is time for science to change in some fairly fundamental ways. These changes have been developing within science itself during the course of the twentieth century, and what we are now witnessing is the possibility of some basic shifts in the way we relate to nature and understand its complex phenomena.

The situation we find ourselves in is rather like that described for the young prince in a fairy tale that presents the whole story in a nutshell. This comes from John Fowles' novel The Magus, published in 1966 when Western culture was going through one of its brief moments of expansion and enlightenment.

The Prince and the Magician
Once upon a time there was a young prince, who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in princesses, he did not believe in islands, and he did not believe in God. His father, the king, told him that such things did not exist. As there were no princesses or islands in his father's domains, and no sign of God, the young man believed his father.

But then, one day, the prince ran away from his palace. He came to the next land. There, to his astonishment, from every coast he saw islands, and on these islands, strange and troubling creatures whom he dared not name. As he was searching for a boat, a man in full evening dress approached him along the shore.

"Are those real islands?" asked the young prince.

"Of course they are real islands," said the man in evening dress.

"And those strange and troubling creatures?"

"They are all genuine and authentic princesses."

"Then God also must exist!" cried the prince.

"I am God," replied the man in full evening dress, with a bow.

The young prince returned home as quickly as he could.

"So you are back," said his father, the king.

"I have seen islands, I have seen princesses, I have seen God," said the prince reproachfully.

The king was unmoved.

"Neither real islands, nor real princesses, nor a real God, exist."

"I saw them!"

"Tell me how God was dressed."

"God was in full evening dress."

"Were the sleeves of his coat rolled back?"

The prince remembered that they had been. The king smiled. "That is the uniform of a magician. You have been deceived."

At this, the prince returned to the next land, and went to the same shore, where once again he came upon the man in full evening dress.

"My father the king has told me who you are," said the young prince indignantly. "You deceived me last time, but not again. Now I know that those are not real islands and real princesses, because you are a magician."

The man on the shore smiled. "It is you who are deceived, my boy. In your father's kingdom there are many islands and many princesses. But you are under your father's spell, so you cannot see them."

The prince returned pensively home. When he saw his father, he looked him in the eyes.

"Father, is it true that you are not a real king, but only a magician?"

The king smiled, and rolled back his sleeves.

"Yes, my son, I am only a magician."

"Then the man on the shore was God."

"The man on the shore was another magician."

"I must know the real truth, the truth beyond magic."

"There is no truth beyond magic," said the king.

The prince was full of sadness.

He said, "I will kill myself."

The king by magic caused death to appear. Death stood in the door and beckoned to the prince. The prince shuddered. He remembered the beautiful but unreal islands and the unreal but beautiful princesses.

"Very well," he said. "I can bear it."

"You see, my son," said the king, "you too now begin to be a magician."

WESTERN SCIENCE, LIKE the young prince, arrived during the twentieth century at a land where things were not as expected from previous scientific knowledge about the world. For three centuries, from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, scientists dedicated their lives to discovering the real truth about nature, interpreted as law-governed processes that can be understood in terms of mechanical causality. Then in the twentieth century came a series of wake-up calls indicating that some basic assumptions needed revision and change.

The first awakening of Western science to the unexpected subtlety of the world came in the early years of the twentieth century with Einstein's discovery of relativity as the way to describe the relationships between different observers in a world where communication is not instantaneous but is limited by the velocity of light. There is no absolute frame of reference, no preferred perspective that gives one observer authority over another in observing natural processes. Each observer is free to choose whatever frame of reference is most convenient and elegant for describing whatever is being observed, and consistency with other observers' chosen reference frames depends upon relations defined by a mathematical transformation.

The second wake-up call to occur in science was the development of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics reveals a physical reality that is holistic. The world does not consist of independent particles whose characteristics of position, momentum, electrical charge, spin, and so on, can be varied independently of each other. The quantum realm is governed by principles of intimate entanglement and co-ordination between its components, a non-local connectedness resulting in holistic, correlated order that extends over time and space, while what is observed depends also on what the observer chooses to look at. This was revealed in the work of physicists such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and David Bohm. The units of matter and those exploring them are entangled in a unity, not separated in lonely isolation from one another.

The third transforming development in science came in the 1970s with the realisation that the laws governing the motion of the planets and the dynamics of the weather include the possibility of what is called deterministic chaos, which means that their behaviour cannot be predicted accurately beyond a limited period of time. Of course, we always knew that the weather is unpredictable, especially if you live in the uk, but this made it official, not because of limitations in our capacity to observe weather states accurately or to compute their unfolding patterns but because of a property known as sensitivity to initial conditions. The first person to understand this was the great French mathematician/physicist Henri Poincaré, but it was Edward Lorenz who made this property clear through his computer simulations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit) in the sixties and seventies.

A final development within science that transformed our view of nature came with the emergence of complexity theory in the eighties and nineties. This started in physics but quickly spread to biology and economics and other areas, the Santa Fe Institute in the usa being a major centre for this work.

Complex systems are defined as those made up of many elements, often of diverse nature, that interact with one another according to well-defined rules. What became evident is that it is possible to understand the behaviour of these elements in isolation and have a perfectly clear understanding of their rules of interaction, but one is unable to predict the coherent behaviour of the whole system.

The patterns that emerged in computers simulating such systems, which include flocks of birds, social insects such as ants and termites, evolving ecosystems, and the dynamic patterns described in Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, reveal that the Earth is like a living organism; the patterns are often unexpected but can be understood after one sees their behaviour. However, the slightest change in the properties of the components or their rules of interaction can produce quite unpredicted behaviour. These unexpected phenomena are known as emergent properties of complex systems. They give us insights into the natural creativity of the world, and urge caution in how we interact with it.

THESE DEVELOPMENTS IN science mean that we now need to learn a more participatory way of relating to reality than the approach of prediction and control that has worked so well for selected aspects of nature. Like the prince in the fairy tale, we need to learn how to engage appropriately with the natural magic of the world. Most of the natural systems on which the quality of our lives depend are complex, uncontrollable and unpredictable, though their behaviour is self-consistent and therefore intelligible to scientific study.

While preserving what we have learned from reductionism and analysis, scientific method now needs to be extended to include ways of direct participation and knowing that give us insight into the properties of the coherent, emergent wholes that make up much of the natural world. Often called intuition or non-inferential knowing, this gives us insight into the qualities of organisms, landscapes, ecosystems, families, communities and organisations, allowing us to recognise whether they are healthy or stressed, integrated or fragmented, coherent or disturbed.

As we engage in this process of gaining knowledge, we ourselves are changed in ways that allow us to see how to behave responsibly in our engagement with the creativity of the world. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in their remarkable book The Tree of Knowledge, put it this way: "We have only the world we can bring forth with others, and only love helps bring it forth … This is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness." This is the way of 'science with love', which is the essence of the holistic approach to understanding and action. o

Brian Goodwin teaches Holistic Science at Schumacher College.

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