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Holism vs. Mechanism in Defining Totalities

“Science, as ordinarily understood, is concerned with those phenomena revealed through the five senses, particularly tha eyes. From a host of observations on instruments of various sorts, the physicist infers the existence of electrons, atoms and so forth. But each of us has another sort of knowledge of one special part of the universe, of one special phenomenon of the universe, namely himself” (Birch 229).

Much debate has centered around the dichotomy of wholes and parts from as early as Democritus (5th century BCE) and Aristotle (4th century BCE). Democritean and Aristotelian philosophies have each had their favor during parts of history. Aristotle was the earliest systematic biologist and, following an encyclopedic treatment of his personal observations on around 500 different types of animals (Swanson 23), he found as the most striking character of biological phenomena its finalism. He later extended this concept into a teleological philosophy, and although he did eventually introduce the concept of a causal necessity, the main conclusion emerging from his analysis was that by far the most important cause in biological and physical phenomena is the final cause (Montalenti 20). His was the most widely accepted view in the West for many centuries due mainly to Aquinas. Dante, for instance, reproaches Democritus for having attributed the world to the mere work of chance (inf., IV, 131, 136). Although that was not altogether precise, for the medieval Aristotelian it came down to the same thing: how can one attempt to explain the harmony of the world without resorting to final causes? Democritus, in turn, presented the West with a much valued causal interpretation of nature. For Democritus, all things resulted from the movement and interactions between atoms, soul atoms being simply a somewhat more subtle version of the others (Reeves 58).

The debate between Democritean and Aristotelian points of views in science and the philosophy of the sciences centers around the question of whether novelties occur or whether all phenomena can be explained as resulting purely from elementary interactions. Both views stand on weak foundations on their own. ‘Reductionism’, as it is often called, aims at explaining the universe 1) without consorting to a fundamental notion of functionally irreducible units, and 2) by outlining the behavior and interaction between what have been shown to be probabilistic – rather than deterministic – elementary particles.

In response to that view, Polanyi states that “the mechanistic explanation of the universe is a meaningless ideal. Not because of the much invoked Principle of Indeterminacy, which is irrelevant, but because the prediction of all atomic positions in the universe would not answer any question of interest to anybody” (41-42). But ‘holism’ does not have it easy either. It can not cling to intuitive notions (i.e. vitalism) and must make amends with the fact that matter is what there is and what ultimately forms the complexities around us – as well as ourselves.

The question is, do we have the right concept of matter? In 1926 J.C. Smuts called for a reform of the concept of matter, stating that “the acceptance of the view for which the materialists fought so hard means in effect a complete transformation of the simple situation which they envisaged”; since matter is capable of life and consciousness, “[it] is no longer the old matter which was merely the vehicle of motion and energy” (10). This view is akin to Birch’s account of a lecture in which Professor W.E. Agar said “a few thousand million years ago there was primeval chaos, and now, here we are, and I think few people can really sustain a belief that a universe which produced life and man requires no different kind of explanation than would be demanded by a universe which did not do so” (Birch 230).

In 1843, J.S. Mill sought to develop a middle way through what came to be known as ‘emergence’: the idea that material complexity leads to the emergence of novel properties, and that properties belonging to a system’s components may become suppressed at these higher levels of integration. It remains a matter of debate whether emergent properties may have any causal power within a system. William Hasker believes so; he maintains that although mental properties emerge from the brain and are inseparable from it, conscious properties are not logical consequences of any combination of properties and of relations between the material constituents of the brain. He further maintains that a “new individual entity” emerges of a certain functional configuration of the material constituents of the brain and nervous system, endowed with “libertarian freedom” (230).

Perhaps the fact that our knowledge of elemental particles weakened rather than reinforced the Democritean ideal, we find a number of quantum physicists taking seriously the notion of irreducible unity. Schrödinger postulates that “the best possible knowledge of a whole does not necessarily include the best possible knowledge of all its parts, even though they may be entirely separate and therefore virtually capable of being ‘best possibly known,’ i.e., of possessing, each of them, a representative of its own. The lack of knowledge is by no means due to the interaction being insufficiently known — at least not in the way that it could possibly be known more completely — it is due to the interaction itself” (Schrödinger 555). David Bohm, in turn, argues that “all action is in the form of definite and measurable units of energy, momentum and other properties called quanta which cannot be further divided… [Thus,] when particles interact, it is as if they were all connected by indivisible links into a single whole” (90)

It might be, as Laszlo views it, that contemporary science has tacitly abandoned the notion of isolated particulars as its units of investigation, and now concerns itself with “ordered totalities” (Laszlo 2). However, in a world made up of systems within systems, ‘totalities’ are not easily defined. One very good definition of ‘unities’ is given to us by Maturana and Varela under the term ‘autopoiesis’ – self-production or self-creation. Autopoiesis seeks to convey ‘autonomy’ as the central feature of the organization of “living autopoietic machines”, which they define as “a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which… regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and… constitute it… as a concrete unity” (Maturana and Varela 79).

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