Holism in science

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Holism in science, or Holistic science, is a scientific paradigm that emphasizes the study of complex systems. Not a scientific discipline itself, it defines a philosophical lens by which emergence is taken into account when applying the scientific method, often within a wider interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary mode of inquiry. This practice is in contrast to a purely analytic tradition which proports to explain everything by understanding systems by dividing them into their smallest possible or discernible elements and understanding their elemental properties alone.


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.[1]

Opposition 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.

That said, 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.

Examples of holistic fields of study in science

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.

Systems biology

A fledgling field in which scientists endeavor to harness large quantities of biological data to gain insights into the functioning of entire biological systems (i.e. plants, animals, organisms). See the Systems biology article for more information.

System dynamics modelling

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.

Complexity theory

Another area of intense holistic scientific research is complexity theory. Research in this area began in 1980s at the Santa Fe Institute, 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. 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.

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 (for more information, see ecology).
  • The study of climate change 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.
  • 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 signficance, testing the hypothesis that there is a collective human consciousness at work in the world. External Link
  • In 1810, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a book, Das Farbenlehre (The Theory of Colors), that not only parted radically with the dominant Newtonian light and 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 Goethe's Theory of Colors as an inspiring example of holistic science. The introduction to the book lays out Goethe's unique philosophy of science.
  • 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</i> 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 whole concept of opposing, or even warring, paradigms in science.

The following have written influential books, treating non-reductionist or holistic science:

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 (Center for the Study of Complex Systems), Princeton University (the Global Consciousness Project), Rice University (Cognitive Sciences Program), and the London Metropolitan University (Centre for Postsecular Studies).

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.) and the Scientific and Medical Network in Europe.

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.

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?"


  • Introduction to Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc. State University of New York Press, 1998

See also

Related articles in Wikipedia:

General articles about scientific paradigms and the classification of scientific endeavors:

External links

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