“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Twelve Tenets of Holons



Ken Wilber’s concept of “holons,” an idea he credits to Arthur Koestler, could rightly be called the key building block of his evolutionary model of the Kosmos. Wilber defines holons as wholes that are parts of other wholes, indefinitely. Each whole is simultaneously a part, a whole/part: a holon. Therefore, the Kosmos “is not composed of wholes nor does it have any parts.”
Such holonic composition is the case with atoms, cells, symbols, cultures—the totality of phenomena. The elements of life can be understood neither as things nor processes, neither as wholes nor parts, but only as simultaneous whole/parts. Therefore, Wilber regards both the conventional “atomistic” and “wholistic” conceptions of reality as mistaken. “There is nothing that isn’t a holon, upwardly and downwardly, forever.” Wilber’s cosmology is a complex elaboration of the principles by which a nested holarchy (i.e., hierarchy of holons) has created and developed the Kosmos through great stages of matter, life, mind and spirit.
At first glance it may seem that holons—sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, etc.—while not things can factually be described as processes. Wilber responds to this, “To say that holons are processes instead of things is in some ways true, but misses the essential point that processes themselves exist only within other processes. There are no things or processes, only holons.” He expands upon this idea:

Before an atom is an atom, it is a holon. Before a cell is a cell, it is a holon. Before an idea is an idea, it is a holon. All of them are wholes that exist in other wholes, and thus they are all whole/parts, or holons, first and foremost (long before any particular characteristics are sorted out by us).
Likewise, reality might indeed be composed of processes and not things, but all processes are only processes within other processes—that is, they are first and foremost holons. Trying to decide whether the fundamental units of reality are things or processes is utterly beside the point, because either way they are all holons, and centering on one or the other misses the central issue. Clearly some things exist, and some processes exist, but they are each and all holons.

In other words, Wilber views holons as the overarching or primary definition or description of the basic units of the Kosmos. It is not that there are no such things as quarks (things) or photosynthesis (processes), but he believes all things and processes are viewed more accurately and completely as whole/parts—holons. This holonic world view becomes crucial (not mere semantics) when one seeks to find common “laws” or “patterns” or “habits” among diverse domains of existence, such as the objective realms of the material universe, science and society, and the subjective realms of psychology, spirituality and culture—which is precisely what Wilber has attempted, and to a very impressive degree, accomplished.

To say that the universe is composed primarily of quarks is already to privilege a particular domain. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, to say that the universe is composed primarily of our symbols, since they are all we really know—that, too, is to privilege a particular domain. But to say that the universe is composed of holons neither privileges a domain nor implies special fundamentalness for any level. Literature, for example, is not composed of subatomic particles; but both literature and subatomic particles are composed of holons.

Let’s examine an outline of twelve tenets of holons that introduce their nature and function.
Having defined a useful new way of viewing the building blocks of Kosmos, Wilber attempts to discern what all holons have in common. He introduces his list of 12 tenets of holons by cautioning that there is nothing special about the number twelve; indeed he admits some of the tenets might not hold up, and others can be added.[1] I add my own caveat: Wilber introduces these tenets in a 46-page chapter and then enlarges upon the ideas for the remaining 700 pages of the book. Here, I must skim the surface of the tenets. Therefore, any apparent gaps and shortcomings should be construed as necessitated by my own brevity and not by Wilber’s lack of thoroughness.

1. The first tenet has been stated: Reality is not composed of things or processes, but of holons. “Thus holons within holons within holons means that the world is without foundation in either wholes or parts (and as for any sort of ‘absolute reality’ in the spiritual sense, we will see that it is neither a whole nor part, neither one nor many, but pure groundless Emptiness, or radically nondual Spirit).” He later adds, “There is a system, but the system is sliding. It is unendingly, dizzifyingly holarchic.”

            2. Holons display four fundamental capacities: self-preservation, self-adaptation, self-transcendence, and self-dissolution.
a.                 All holons display some tendency to preserve their own individuality or autonomy. Even a hydrogen atom tends to maintain its identity over time. A living cell displays a more advanced capacity for pattern-preservation, and a human ego even more capacity. “In short, holons are defined, not by the stuff of which they are made (there is no stuff), nor by the context in which they live (though they are inseparable from that), but by the relatively autonomous and coherent pattern they display, and the capacity to preserve that pattern is one characteristic of a holon.”

b.                 In its capacity as a part of a larger whole, every holon must adapt or accommodate itself to other holons. Even electrons register and react to other electrons in their orbital shell. “As a whole, it remains itself; as a part, it must fit in… We can just as well think of these two opposed tendencies as a holon’s agency and communion. Its agency—its self-asserting, self-preserving, assimilating tendencies—expresses its wholeness, its relative autonomy; whereas its communion—its participatory, bonding, joining tendencies—expresses its partness, its relationship to something larger.” Later in the book, Wilber explores how an imbalance of either of these tendencies in any system becomes pathology. In Arthur Koestler’s words: “Biological holons are self-regulating open systems which display both the autonomous properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts. This dichotomy is present on every level of every type of hierarchic organization, and is referred to as the Janus Effect or Janus principle.”

c.                 Different wholes come together to form new and dissimilar wholes. For example, two hydrogen atoms join with an oxygen atom to form a molecule of water. This is self-transcendence, not just assimilation or adaptation, but a transformation that results in something novel and emergent. “This introduces a vertical dimension… In self-transcendence, agency and communion do not just interact; rather, new forms of agency and communion emerge through symmetry breaks, through the introduction of new and creative twists in the evolutionary stream.” This generates the sudden leaps and apparent discontinuities often observed in evolution of any kind.

d.                 Holons that are built up can also break down. This is self-dissolution. When holons disintegrate, they do so along the vertical sequence in which they were assembled (emerged). These four forces—agency, communion, self-transcendence and dissolution—are in constant dynamic tension, whether one is referring to atoms and cells, or teen-agers and parents, or individuals and societies, etc.


3.  Holons emerge. First quarks, then atoms, molecules, amino acids, proteins, organelles, cells, and so on, right up to lecturers and students, the ecosystem and beyond. The properties of emergent holons cannot be deduced from their subholons, nor can any holon be reduced to its components. (A human being is more than a collection of organ systems.)
GET SOMEONE TO RELATE THE PATTERN AS FAR AS HE OR SHE CAN.

4.  Holons emerge holarchically. That is, hierarchically, as a series of increasing whole/parts. “Organisms contain cells, but not vice versa; cells contain molecules, but not vice versa; molecules contain atoms, but not vice versa. And it is that not vice versa, at each stage, that constitutes unavoidable asymmetry and hierarchy (holarchy).”

5.  Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessors. While adding its own new form and qualities, it preserves the previous holons themselves, but negates their isolatedness. “All of the lower is in the higher, but not all of the higher is in the lower. For example, hydrogen atoms are in a water molecule, but the water molecule is not in the atoms.” Therefore, at a given level of the holarchy, a particular system is internal to the systems above it and external to the systems below it. This concept later plays strongly into Wilber’s apologia for the ego structure remaining after enlightenment.

6. The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower. Even though a newly emergent level transcends the lower level, it does not violate the laws of the lower level. “My body follows the laws of gravity; my mind follows other laws, such as those of symbolic communication and linguistic syntax; but if my body falls off a cliff, my mind goes with it… Nothing in the laws governing physical particles can predict the emergence of a wristwatch, but nothing in the wristwatch violates the laws of physics.”

7. The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises determines whether it is “shallow” or “deep”; and the number of holons on any given level we shall call  its “span.” Atoms, for example, have a shallow depth (they are composed of only a few lower levels, including electrons and protons), but a vast span, filling the universe. Then molecules appeared, at a greater depth (composed of atoms), but with less span (there are a zillion times fewer molecules than atoms in the universe).

8. Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span. “The greater the depth of a holon, the more precarious its existence, since its existence depends also on the existence of a whole series of other holons internal to it.” But the pay-off is that the greater the depth of a holon, the greater its degree of consciousness. Indeed, evolution is properly viewed as a spectrum of consciousness. “One can perhaps begin to see that a spiritual dimension is built into the very fabric, the very depth, of the Kosmos.”

9. Destroy any type of holon and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it. Destroying all molecules would wipe out all cells, but the atoms and subatomic particles would survive intact. Therefore, the less depth of a holon, the more fundamental it is to the Kosmos, because so many higher orders depend on it. On the other hand, the greater a holon’s depth, the more significant it is. A human being is not very fundamental. We could all evaporate tomorrow and most other species would breathe a collective sigh of relief. But as high-level organisms (greater depth) we embrace, embody, reflect and signify more of Kosmos than a kudzu vine because we are comprised of countless more holons.

10. Holarchies coevolve. Holons do not emerge (evolve) alone, because there are no loner holons, but only fields within fields within fields. Gregory Bateson called this principle co-evolution. This means that the unit of evolution is not an isolated holon, but the whole ecosystem. Wilber puts it thus: “All agency is always agency-in-communion.”
(… Worlds without end, Amen, Amen.)

11. The micro is in relational exchange with the macro at all levels of its depth. Each holon preserves itself through relational exchanges with holons at the same depth in its environment. Wilber gives the example of a human being, who for reasons of simplification, can be said to consist of just the levels of matter, life and mind. The physical body depends on physical laws and on food production and consumption, and on sexual reproduction, which depend upon labor organized in an economy for basic material exchanges riding on a local and even global network of social and ecosystems. These exchanges occur at the level (depth) of the physiosphere and biosphere. Human beings also reproduce themselves mentally through exchanges at the level of culture and within symbolic environments, which Wilber calls the noosphere. For short, he dubs this tenet, “same-level relational exchange.”

12. Evolution has directionality. Holons evolve in the direction of:

a) Increasing complexity. This is simultaneously a new simplicity, because the emergent whole, as a new single system is simpler than its many components.
b) Increasing differentiation/integration. Wilber explains this by quoting Alfred Whitehead: “The many [differentiation] become one [integration] and are increased by one [the new holon].”
c) Increasing organization/structure. Evolution moves to ever-more complex systems and ever-higher levels of organization.
d) Increasing relative autonomy. Higher-order holons become better able to adapt and survive in the midst of environmental changes (physical, social, cultural). We humans made it through the Ice Ages; wooly mammoths died out when the weather grew too warm. “By the time we reach the noosphere, in humans, relative autonomy is of such a high degree that it can produce not just differentiation from the environment, which is necessary, but dissociation  from the environment, which is disastrous—an expression of pathological agency that, among many other things, lands it squarely in ecological hell.” Autonomy is always only relative because there are no independent wholes, only whole/parts. You may be a pacifist, but when the president gets our nation into war, we are then all included in that war whether you like it or not. “Thus, autonomy, like all aspects of a holon, is sliding.

e) Increasing Telos. “An acorn’s code (its DNA) has oak written all over it,” Wilber says. Indeed, the entire universe has a wonderful goal—embedded in its “code”—unfolding through eons of evolution. If this sounds like the evolutionary theologies of Paul Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo, it is because Wilber has been influenced by their writings (especially Aurobindo’s The Life Divine). “A final Omega Point? That would imply a final Whole, and there is no such holon anywhere in existence,” Wilber writes. “But perhaps we can interpret it differently. Who knows, perhaps Telos, perhaps Eros, moves the entire Kosmos, and God may indeed be an all-embracing chaotic Attractor, acting, as Whitehead said, throughout the world by gentle persuasion toward love.”


[1] Contrast this attitude with the stance of the Kashmiri Shaivites, Kabbalists, et al. who appear to take their numbers as absolutes. “No, not twenty-five tattvas, you bloody fool! Thirty-six!” Wilber addresses this attachment to numerical exactitude: “The number of levels in any holon has an element of arbitrariness to it, simply because there is no upper or lower limit to a manifest hierarchy and therefore no absolute referent.” 

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