Origins of Wholistic Thinking
Modern awareness of the breath and power of the perspective of wholism is based largely on the intellectual work of Jan C. Smuts. Born in 1870 of Dutch ancestry on a South African farm, Smuts had a brilliant and broadly ranging mind. At sixteen he attended Victoria College where he won first class honors in both science and arts. He pursued graduate studies at Cambridge where he became the first student in history to take both parts of the law tripos examination in the same year—and he ranked first place in both. Upon graduation he won first place in the Inns of Court honours examination in London. He read widely and published works in physical sciences (primarily botany), social sciences (principally law and international relations), literary criticism, and philosophy. After a distinguished career as a military and political leader and an international statesman, he spent his later years studying and expounding on the broad and powerful implications of a wholistic perspective.
Smuts enunciated the basic tenets of wholism: that there is a natural tendency found in a wide variety of systems—biological, social, cosmological, and others—for the evolution of ever larger and more complex wholes, and that these cannot be fully comprehended through analysis of their parts. In essence, in other words (for human dimensions), whether one considers a cell, a human being, a nation, or a world of nations, the whole is somehow, perhaps subtly but profoundly, greater than the sum of its parts.
We live in complex and tumultuous times. Smuts felt, and we at CPU believe, that wholism provides a governing view and guiding path through this complexity. The twentieth century has justifiably—from a variety of perspectives—been seen as the age of unprecedented developments in psychology (and other social sciences), of physical science and technology (from esoteric nuclear energy to ubiquitous, versatile plastics and other fabricated materials), of information explosion and worldwide communications, and of globalized change (political, ecological, etc.). In all of these important areas we see the evolution of ever larger and more complex systems. The concepts for understanding and handling such systems have evolved through ever more sophisticated statistics and organizational models, analysis of colligative properties and gestalt interrelationships, general system theory, and other organizing principles.
A related approach to higher levels of organization which has had wide interest and impact in recent decades is that of ‘General System Theory’. The following presentation is from the introduction to a seminal work in the field, General System Theory by Ludwig von Bertalanffy. It outlines changes in science and the broader culture that have led to more ‘wholistic’ perspectives in general, and describes the place of ‘general system’ approaches in particular.
Classical science in its diverse disciplines, be it chemistry, biology, psychology, or the social sciences, tried to isolate the elements of the observed universe—chemical compounds and enzymes, cells, elementary sensations, freely competing individuals, what not—expecting that, by putting them together again, conceptually or experimentally, the whole or system—cell, mind, society—would result and be intelligible. Now we have learned that for an understanding not only the elements but their interrelations as well are required: say, the interplay of enzymes in a cell, of many mental processes conscious and unconscious, the structure and dynamics of social systems and the like. This requires exploration of the many systems in our observed universe in their own right and specificities. Furthermore, it turns out that there are general aspects, correspondences, and isomorphisms common to ‘systems’. This is the domain of general system theory; indeed, such parallelisms or isomorphies appear—sometimes surprisingly—in otherwise totally different ‘systems’. General system theory, then, is scientific exploration of ‘wholes’ and ‘wholeness’ which, not so long ago, were considered to be metaphysical notions transcending the boundaries of science. Novel conceptions, models, and mathematical fields have developed to deal with them, such as dynamical system theory, cybernetics, automata theory, system analysis by set, net, graph theory, and others.
The second realm is ‘systems technology’, that is, the problems arising in modern technology and society, comprising both the ‘hardware’ of computers, automation, self-regulating machinery, etc., and the ‘software’ of new theoretical developments and disciplines.
Modern technology and society have become so complex that traditional ways and means are not sufficient any more; approaches of a wholistic or systems, and generalist or inter-disciplinary nature are now necessary. This is true in many ways. Systems of many levels ask for scientific control: ecosystems the disturbance of which results in pressing problems like pollution; formal organizations like a bureaucracy, educational institution, or army; the grave problems appearing in socioeconomic systems, in international relations, politics, and deterrence. Irrespective of the questions of how far scientific understanding (contrasted to the admission of irrationality of cultural and historical events) is possible, and to what extent scientific control is feasible or even desirable, there can be no dispute that these are essentially ‘systems’ problems, that is, problems of interrelations of a great number of ‘variables’. The same applies to narrower objectives in industry, commerce, and armament. The technological demands have led to novel conceptions and disciplines, partly of great originality and introducing new basic notions, such as control and information theory, game, decision theory, theory of circuits and queueing, etc. The general characteristic, again, is that these were the offspring of specific and concrete problems in technology, but models, conceptualizations, and principles—as, for example, the concepts of information, feedback, control, stability, circuit theory, etc.—by far transcended specialist boundaries, were of an interdisciplinary nature, and were found to be independent of their special realizations, as exemplified by isomorphic feedback models in mechanical, hydrodynamic, electrical, biological, etc., systems. Similarly, developments originating in pure and in applied science converge, as in dynamical system theory and control theory. Again, there is a spectrum from highly sophisticated mathematical theory, to computer simulation where variables can be treated quantitatively but analytical solutions are lacking, to more or less informal discussion of problems of a system nature.
Thirdly, there is system philosophy, i.e. the reorientation of thought and world view ensuing from the introduction of ‘system’ as a new scientific paradigm (in contrast to the analytic, mechanistic, one-way causal paradigm of classical science). As every scientific theory of broad scope, general system theory has its ‘metascientific’ or philosophical aspects. The concept of ‘system’ constitutes a new ‘paradigm’, in Thomas Kuhn’s phrase, or a new philosophy of nature, contrasting the ‘blind laws of nature’ of the mechanistic world view and the world process as a Shakespearean tale told by an idiot, with an organismic outlook of the world as a great organization.
This essentially divides into three parts. First, we must find out the ‘nature of the beast’. This is systems ontology—what is meant by ‘system’ and how systems are realized at the various levels of the world of observation.
What is to be defined and described as system is not a question with an obvious or trivial answer. It will be readily agreed that a galaxy, a dog, a cell, and an atom are real systems; that is, entities perceived in or inferred from observation, and existing independently of an observer. On the other hand, there are conceptual systems such as logic, mathematics (but also including music) which essentially are symbolic constructs, with abstracted systems (science) as a subclass of the latter, i.e. conceptual systems corresponding with reality.
However, the distinction is by no means as sharp and clear as it would appear. An ecosystem or social system is ‘real’ enough, as we uncomfortably experience when, for example, the ecosystem is disturbed by pollution, or society presents us with so many unsolved problems. But these are not objects of perception or direct observation; they are conceptual constructs. The same is true even of the objects of our everyday world which by no means are simply ‘given’ as sense data or simple perceptions, but actually are construed by an enormity of ‘mental’ factors ranging from gestalt dynamics and learning processes to linguistic and cultural factors largely determining what we actually ‘see’ or perceive. Thus the distinction between ‘real’ objects and systems as given in observation and ‘conceptual’ constructs and systems cannot be drawn any commonsense way. These are deep problems which can only be indicated in this context.
This leads to systems epistemology. As is apparent from the above, this is profoundly different from the epistemology of logical positivism or empiricism even though it shares their scientific attitude. The epistemology (and metaphysics) of logical positivism was determined by the ideas of physicalism, atomism, and the ‘camera-theory’ of knowledge. These, in view of present-day knowledge, are obsolete. As against physicalism and reductionism, the problems and modes of thought occurring in the biological, behavioral, and social sciences require equal consideration and simple ‘reduction’ to the elementary particles and conventional laws of physics does not appear feasible. Compared to the analytical procedure of classical science with resolution into component elements and one-way or linear causality as a basic category, the investigation of organized wholes of many variables requires new categories of interaction, transaction, organization, teleology, etc. with many problems arising for epistemology, mathematical models, and techniques. Furthermore, perception is not a reflection of ‘real things’ (whatever their metaphysical status), and knowledge not a simple approximation to ‘truth’ or ‘reality’. It is an interaction between knower and known, this dependent on a multiplicity of factors of a biological, psychological, cultural, linguistic, etc., nature. Physics itself tells that there are no ultimate entities like corpuscles or waves, existing independent of the observer. This leads to a ‘perspective’ philosophy for which physics, fully acknowledging its achievements in its own and related fields, is not a monopolistic way of knowledge. Against reductionism and theories declaring that reality is ‘nothing but’ (a heap of physical particles, genes, reflexes, drives, or whatever the case may be), we see science as one of the ‘perspectives’ humans with their biological, cultural, and linguistic endowment and bondage have created to deal with the universe they are thrown into, or rather to which they have adapted owing to evolution and history.
The third part of systems philosophy will be concerned with the relations of humans and world or what is termed ‘values’ in philosophical parlance. If reality is a hierarchy of organized wholes, the image of humanity will be different from what it is in a world of physical particles governed by chance events as ultimate and only ‘true’ reality. Rather, the world of symbols, values, social entities, and cultures is something very ‘real’; and its embeddedness in a cosmic order of hierarchies is apt to bridge the opposition of C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” of science and the humanities, technology and history, natural and social sciences, or in whatever way the antithesis is formulated.
The Legacy of Jan Smuts
Bertalanffy describes eloquently the contributions of ‘general system theory’. More recent approaches to complex and high levels of organization involve the mathematics of fuzzy set theory, fractals, chaos theory, econometric risk analysis, and the powerful new dimensions of scientific inquiry opened up by the development of computer simulations. Parallel perspectives have appeared even in the arts with their modern explorations of new sights, sounds, and movements—new patterns and their creative disruption. But like the grand unifying and simplifying concepts of Newton and Einstein, Aristotle and Korzybski, Buddha and the Talmud, the perspective of wholism threads its way through a vast array of complex and varied fields reminding explorers to look beyond the present horizon, expect more than intrinsic implications—more order, more harmony, more synchrony—in thought systems, in health, in education…everywhere. That is the essence and the power of wholism; that is the gift of Jan Smuts.
Gaia: The Living Earth
An informative example of wholistic thinking is the conception of ‘Gaia’, the Earth as a single, gigantic living organism. This recent stirring scientific (and philosophical) proposition by James Lovelock, an imaginative and widely respected but renegade scientist, has stimulated considerable controversy in the scientific community but also considerable fascination and approval among worldwide humanistic and ‘green’ sociopolitical groups. The objections or concerns of scientists center around the idea that the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ is not ‘scientific’ because it is not scientifically provable (or, rather, disprovable); in other words, it is very difficult to design scientific experiments that might contradict the hypothesis (and therefore, by their failure, lend it weight or credence). That is the method of science. Science is most useful when it is analytical and parsimonious in this way.
On the other hand, the Gaia hypothesis has been very interesting to others (non-physical scientists) who are concerned about indifference toward and abuses of the delicate, interbalanced living systems of our planet Earth on which human life, among many other species, depends for survival. For them the Gaia hypothesis has provided a beautiful and powerful image that touches our hearts and stimulates concern for some of the larger ecological issues our civilization must confront if humanity is to survive.
The Gaia hypothesis is wholistic because it reaches beyond the fringes of what we know to suggest higher levels of pattern, organization, harmony; to stimulate our creative and constructive thinking; to lead us toward higher levels of personal awareness, harmony, and growth. How it came about in James Lovelock’s thinking is presented here in some detail because it is an example of wholistic thinking, a kind of thinking which can be very useful in guiding our personal educational efforts.
The following is excerpted from the introduction to The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth by James Lovelock (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988).
The idea that the Earth is alive is at the outer bounds of scientific credibility. I started to think and then to write about it in my early fifties. I was just old enough to be radical without the taint of senile delinquency. My contemporary and fellow villager, the novelist William Golding, suggested that anything alive deserves a name—what better for a living planet than Gaia, the name the Greeks used for the Earth Goddess?
The concept that the Earth is actively maintained and regulated by life on the surface had its origins in the search for life on Mars. It all started one morning in the spring of 1961 when the postman brought a letter that was for me almost as full of promise and excitement as a first love letter. It was an invitation from NASA to be an experimenter on its first lunar instrument mission. The letter was from Abe Silverstein, director of the NASA space flight operations. I can still recall the joyous and lasting incredulity.
My first encounter with the space science of NASA was to visit that open plan cathedral of science and engineering, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just outside the suburb of Pasadena in California. Soon after I began work with NASA on the lunar probe, I was moved to the even more exciting job of designing sensitive instruments that would analyze the surfaces and atmospheres of the planets. My background, though, was biology and medicine, and I grew curious about the experiments to detect life on other planets. I expected to find biologists engaged in designing experiments and instruments as wonderful and exquisitely constructed as the spacecraft themselves. The reality was a disappointment that marked the end of my euphoria. I felt that their experiments had little chance of finding life on Mars, even if the planet were swarming with it.
From the beginning to the end, the Martian life detection experiments had a marked air of unreality…I was sure that there was a better way. At that time Dian Hitchcock, a philosopher, visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she was employed by NASA to assess the logical consistency of the experiments. Together we decided that the most certain way to detect life on planets was to analyze their atmospheres. We published two papers suggesting that life on a planet would be obliged to use the atmosphere and oceans as conveyors of raw materials and depositories for the products of its metabolism. This would change the chemical composition of the atmosphere so as to render it recognizably different from the atmosphere of a lifeless planet. Even on Earth the Viking lander might have failed to find life had it landed on the antarctic ice. By contrast a full atmospheric analysis, which the Viking was not equipped to do, would have provided a clear answer; indeed, even in the 1960s, analyses of the Martian atmosphere were available from telescopes that used infrared instead of visible light to look at Mars. They revealed an atmosphere that was dominated by carbon dioxide and not far from the state of chemical equilibrium. The gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, on the other hand, are in a persistent state of disequilibrium. This strongly suggested to us that Mars was lifeless.
That, then, is how the Gaia hypothesis started. We looked at the Earth in our imagination, and therefore with fresh eyes, and found many things, including the radiation from the Earth of an infrared signal characteristic of the anomalous chemical composition of its atmosphere. This unceasing song of life is audible to anyone with a receiver, even from outside the Solar System. I will try to show in the chapters that follow that unless life takes charge of its planet, and occupies it extensively, the conditions of its tenancy are not met. Planetary life must be able to regulate its climate and chemical state. Part time or incomplete occupancy or mere occasional visits will not be enough to overcome the ineluctable forces that drive the chemical and physical evolution of a planet.
The Gaia hypothesis supposes the Earth to be alive, and considers what evidence there is for and against the supposition. I first put it before my fellow scientists in 1972 as a note with the title “Gaia as Seen Through the Atmosphere.” It was brief, taking only one page of the journal, Atmospheric Environment. The evidence was mostly drawn from the atmospheric composition of the Earth and its state of chemical disequilibrium.
In science, a hypothesis is really no more than a ‘let’s suppose’. The first Gaia book was hypothetical, and lightly written—a rough pencil sketch that tried to catch a view of the Earth seen from a different perspective. Thoughtful criticisms of this first book led to new and deeper insights into Gaia. In a physiological sense the Earth was alive. Much new evidence has accumulated, and I have made new theoretical models. We can now fill in some of the finer details, though fortunately there seems little need to erase the original lines. As a consequence this second book is a statement of Gaia theory; the basis of a new and unified view of the Earth and life sciences. Because Gaia was seen from outside as a physiological system, I have called the science of Gaia geophysiology.
Why run the Earth and life sciences together? I would ask, why have they been torn apart by the ruthless dissection of science into separate and blinkered disciplines? Geologists have tried to persuade us that the Earth is just a ball of rock, moistened by the oceans; that nothing but a tenuous film of air excludes the hard vacuum of space; and that life is merely an accident, a quiet passenger that happens to have hitched a ride on this rock ball in its journey through space and time. Biologists have been no better. They have asserted that living organisms are so adaptable that they have been fit for any material changes that have occurred during the Earth’s history. But suppose that the Earth is alive. Then the evolution of the organisms and the evolution of the rocks need no longer be regarded as separate sciences to be studied in separate buildings of the university. Instead, a single evolutionary science describes the history of the whole planet. The evolution of the species and the evolution of their environment are tightly coupled together as a single and inseparable process.
Science is not obsessively concerned with whether facts are right or wrong. The practice of science is that of testing guesses; forever iterating around and towards the unattainable absolute of truth. To scientists, Gaia is a new guess that is up for trial or a novel ‘bioscope’ through which to look at life on Earth. In some sciences, Gaian ideas are appropriate, even if not welcomed, because the vision of the world through older theories is no longer sharp and clear. This is particularly true of theoretical ecology, evolutionary biology, and the Earth sciences generally.
Any new theory about the Earth cannot be kept a secret of science. It is bound to attract the attention of humanists, environmentalists, and those of religious beliefs and faiths. Gaia theory is as out of tune with the broader humanist world as it is with established science. In Gaia we are just another species, neither the owners nor the stewards of this planet. Our future depends much more upon a right relationship with Gaia than with the never ending drama of human interest.
Health in Body, Mind, Spirit, and Community
Although ‘wholism’ (or ‘holism’) seems to fade in and out of fashion a bit, a careful look at its meaning and implications confirms its validity and vitality.
In 1733 the great British poet, Alexander Pope, composed a stirringly perceptive and broad statement of the philosophical perspective of wholism.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
—From “Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope.
Each line of this poem warrants careful study. Pope has made a series of carefully thought-out and sculpted statements about the breadth and implications of wholism. That they are not easily grasped is illustrated by the misunderstanding editorial comment of Edwin Markham.
Whatever is, is in its causes just.—Dryden. This epigram is reasonable—not so the saying of Pope: “Whatever is, is right,” for the world is peppered with things that are not right, yet those things are in their causes just; for they all rise out of law.
Writing in 1926, Markham presented the dedicated belief in scientific “law” of his age. He failed to make the leap of intellect (and faith) which Pope seems to have made. This is the leap to wholism as a hypothesis, in other words, to the suspicion or prediction that there are greater, higher, broader, subtler kinds of orderliness in any given situation than immediately meet the eye. In religious thinking, this is the leap of faith—that God knows more than humans, sees bigger patterns, and has more complex and perfect plans than we can envision. To quote Alexander Pope again:
Thou Great First Cause, least understood,
Who all my sense confined
To know but this: that Thou art good,
And that myself am blind.
—From “The Universal Prayer” by Alexander Pope
This broader leap is discussed more extensively in the next section (titled “Higher Dimensions of Wholism: Chaos, Risk, and Intuition”). In this present section we will focus on the implications of a wholistic perspective for such less philosophically exalted matters as personal lifestyle, health, career planning, and community involvements—and finally education, specifically higher, adult, and continuing education which is self-designed and self-driven.
The implications of wholism for these personal matters can be summed up by saying
All aspects of an individual’s life experience are important.
Each person’s life experience can be a harmonious whole.
We all experience that, from time to time, different interests and problems call for our time and attention. Physical pain may signal a health problem that become all-important and all-absorbing. A few minutes, hours, or days later, the physical pain may be gone, but financial challenges loom up to take over our consciousness. Later still, some family problems, career tasks, recreational interests, or other aspects of a total life picture dominate our attention and call for our efforts.
While we are feeling the push and pull of these various problems, we are also prioritizing our efforts and feelings. In other words, we are telling ourselves that this or that should not be as important as it seems, or should get more of our effort. We are classifying our experiences as “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” “desirable” and “to be avoided.” We tend to lose sight of the realization that each human life is a complex series of experiences and challenges, and that, when we step back and look at a broader view of our life involvements and activities, they all seem to be integrated and flowing harmoniously. In moments of wisdom and philosophical perspective, we can even see that the problems and challenges which moment by moment seem so troublesome in life are actually teaching us; they are helping us to learn and to grow.
Wholism in daily life reminds us to look for the big picture, to try to be aware of the lesson behind each problem, to have confidence that the overall flow of the parts of our lives when put together is toward wisdom and wholeness.
The Educational Philosophy of CPU
The Columbia Pacific University curriculum is based on a wholistic philosophical perspective translated into the following assumptions:
Each person is unique; each individual’s background provides a personal array of abilities and interests which is different from anyone else’s.
An individual’s life experience is most satisfying and productive if the person can acknowledge and develop this unique pattern of abilities and interests—this individuality.
Education can and should be based on, draw forth, and facilitate the development of this individuality.
It is a proper role of higher education to enhance and refine this process for already-accomplished individuals, those who have previously attained meaningful levels of productive creativity,
So that the individual can expand professional productivity and acceptance, and make personally meaningful career developments.
There are many aspects to an individual’s life experience; one’s interest and activity at times focuses on considerations of health, family, recreation, spirituality, etc.
All aspects of an individual’s life experience can be integrated so that they mutually support and facilitate one another.
Education can and should help an individual develop this personal integration and support.
It is a proper role of higher education to challenge the already-accomplished individual to develop more effective and comprehensive integration of body, mind, and spirit, the significant dimensions of personal life experience, so that the individual can develop more clear and personally relevant goals, and a lifestyle which is more satisfying, healthful, and effective in supporting the individual’s movement toward those goals.
Higher Dimensions of Wholism
Wholism, as you can see from the previous discussion, represents the highest (that is, the most complex or abstract) level of order in any system—physical, psychological, social, philosophical, etc. But by logical extension the term ‘wholism’ can also be used to represent something above and beyond the highest levels of order; it suggests the possibility that there may be more—that whatever level we contemplate, there may be more pattern, structure, harmony, integration that we have not yet considered.
Thus, for example, in daily life an individual may have mastered the cognitive and emotional skills necessary to earn a living, have a satisfying career, and balance the various expenses of lifestyle and recreational interests. Nevertheless, the same individual may experience difficulty in other areas. For example, he or she may find tension and stress in personal relationships at home, or pain and distress from physical ailments. Another person, on the other hand, may find family relationships quite stable and loving, and yet find that vocational activities are dreary and frustrating or that finances are chronically insecure and stressful. For every individual there are some areas of daily life experience that flow smoothly and satisfyingly and some that are disquieting, puzzling, and eternally out of joint. The philosophical perspective of wholism suggests that for every individual greater harmony can be attained. It holds out a beacon of guidance and of hope.
It is in this context that we define ‘higher dimensions of wholism’ as the areas of experience from which new patterns and higher orders of integration may emerge. For the individual who says (or feels, perhaps unconsciously) that physical pain, disability, and ineptitude are unavoidable in life, wholism suggests that it is possible to have a better sense of physical well-being. Although different people have different burdens of physical liability, how we handle our physical limitations and how well we integrate our physical attributes with the rest of our lives can make a world of difference. (Readers who doubt this are invited to reflect on the physical disabilities which are coupled with high levels of effective functioning of some of the individuals discussed in the section titled “Trends in Educational Technology,” for example, Stephen Hawking and Ken Keyes.) Similarly, for the individual who says (or feels, perhaps unconsciously) that close emotional relationships always seem to be harrowing and fraught with discord, wholism suggests that higher levels of interpersonal harmony are possible. Wherever an individual experiences distress, confusion, or dissonance is the territory of ‘higher dimensions of wholism’ in daily personal life.
But let us now look outside the areas of daily personal life at some other interesting areas encompassed by the concept ‘higher dimensions of wholism’. It is important to realize that none of these ideas are presented as right or wrong, but rather as food for thought. The materials in this section, “Higher Dimensions of Wholism,” are meant to show a kind of thought, a willingness to grasp at the unknown and to fathom (and make) leaps of creative conceptualization. This represents an illusive quality of mind, but one that is essential for learning new ideas and approaching new fields through independent study. In supervised or tutored study, a teacher may sculpt and trigger new conceptualizations for the student. In adult independent study, the student must be cognitively and emotionally prepared for and open to them.
The Anthropic Principle
In recent years science has become increasingly confronted with the improbability of human existence. As science has progressed in its studies of the structure of the universe and of the various factors that are crucial to humanity’s development and ongoing processes, an astounding history of improbable coincidences has been revealed.
In scientific (or metascientific) thinking, this has come to be termed the ‘anthropic principle’. The word ‘anthropic’ refers to the perspective that human beings are the central focus of the universe. This was a view popular in the Middle Ages because of the belief that the sun, moon, and stars all revolved around the Earth, and that the other creatures of the Earth were merely meant for human service. A renewal of the anthropic view has emerged recently as a result of twentieth century science.
One version of the modern anthropic principle, the so-called ‘soft’ anthropic principle, proposes that although the cosmic coincidences necessary to produce the human race are very remarkable indeed, if they had not occurred, we would not be here remarking on them. Thus by the soft anthropic principle, although the coincidences are very surprising, they are only evaluated as curious in retrospect, and therefore are not particularly legitimate or convincing as the basis for further arguments. The ‘hard’ version of the anthropic principle goes further: the coincidences are so outlandishly unlikely, their occurrence suggests there is a greater plan operating behind the scenes, arranging for human beings to emerge and survive.
First, what are these bizarre coincidences? George Greenstein provides a list in the appendix to his book The Symbiotic Universe: Life and the Cosmos in Unity.
“(1) A remarkable feature of the universe is its emptiness; stars are extraordinarily distant from one another. However, were it not for these vast reaches of empty space, violent collisions between stars would be so frequent as to render the universe uninhabitable. The yet more frequent near-misses would detach planets from orbit about their suns, flinging them off into interstellar space where they would quickly cool to hundreds of degrees below zero.
(2) Life requires chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, both for biochemical reasons and because hydrogen and helium are incapable of forming solids and liquids. These crucial heavy elements are synthesized by nuclear reactions in the cores of stars. For years it was recognized that there was a roadblock standing in the way of these reactions, and it was not known how nature finds its way around that roadblock. Eventually it was discovered that the synthesis proceeds by virtue of two separate resonances between nuclei in the cores of red giant stars; the situation is somewhat analogous to finding a double resonance linking a car, a bicycle, and a truck. Were it not for the coincidence of this double matching, the cosmos would consist solely of hydrogen and helium and could not support life.
(3) The charges of the electron and proton have been measured in the laboratory and have found to be precisely equal and opposite. Were it nor for this fact, the resulting charge imbalance would force every object in the universe—our bodies, trees, planets, suns—to explode violently. The cosmos would consist solely of a uniform and tenuous mixture not so very different from air.
(4) Water has a number of striking and unusual properties not shared by any other liquid, properties that make it indispensable to every organism known to science. (4A) Its ability to dissolve and transport substances is anomalously great; (4B) it plays an essential role in photosynthesis, which in turn is the ultimate source of all food upon the Earth; (4C) it is the source of all the oxygen in the atmosphere; (4D) its unusually high heat of vaporization enables mammals to regulate their body temperatures by means such as sweating; (4D) its ability to store great amounts of heat while undergoing only slight increases in temperature keeps the climate from being bitterly severe; and (4E) its peculiar expansion upon freezing is all that prevents most of it from permanently freezing solid.
(5) It is heat from the Sun that keeps the Earth from rapidly cooling down to the near absolute zero of interstellar space, and it is the energy of sunlight that ultimately supplies all the food, and nearly all the energy, employed upon the Earth. But the Sun’s existence hangs by a thread. (5A) The neutron outweighs the proton by a fraction of a percent; if it did not, neither the Sun nor any other star like it could continue shining for more than a mere few hundred years. (5B) A remarkable matching exists between the temperature of the Sun (and other stars) and the absorptive properties of chlorophyll; without this matching, neither photosynthesis nor any other chemical reaction capable of trapping the energy of sunlight could take place. (5C) The ‘strong force’ (which binds atomic nuclei together) is just barely strong enough to hold the deuteron together; were it slightly weaker, the deuteron would not exist and stars such as the Sun could not generate energy by nuclear reactions. (5D) Conversely, were the strong force slightly stronger, this generation of energy would involve a fuel so ferociously reactive as to be violently unstable.
(6) Had space fewer than three dimensions, the complex network of interconnections required for the operation of the nervous system and the flow of blood would be impossible. Had space more than three dimensions, planets could not orbit their suns stably, but would either fall into them or rocket off into the absolute zero of interstellar space.
(7) The ‘Big Bang’ in which the universe originated appears to have been delicately and precisely tuned—tuned in four different ways: (7A) Its density was adjusted to have a certain value, the so-called ‘critical density’; had it not been, the cosmos would have recollapsed, winking out of existence, the instant after it was created. Furthermore, the Big Bang was (7B) perfectly smooth and (7C) of a perfectly uniform temperature; had it not been, the subsequent evolution would have led to a state consisting not of stars with their life-giving light and warmth, nor of planets upon which life might flourish, but solely of giant black holes wandering through otherwise empty space. (7D) Finally, the apparent symmetry of matter with respect to antimatter implies that the Big Bang’s content of each ought to have been symmetrical; had this been so, however, the subsequent evolution would have led to a state containing no matter of any sort. In fact the content of matter was ‘tuned’ to be very slightly greater than that of antimatter.
Greenstein discusses further the significance of these coincidences, both philosophically and also personally. This is an important aspect of “higher dimensions of wholism” thinking.
But if all these catastrophes will not come to pass, why bring them up? Why spend so much time worrying over disasters from which we are safe? Because we are only just barely safe—and that is the point of this book. Our existence, and that of every other life form in the universe, depends on a concatenation of circumstances, a network of interlocking conditions, each one of which must have held true in order for life to have come into being. The potential dangers that threaten us are so vast as to affect not just one person’s existence, but that of life as a whole; and they arise not only from the structure of the universe, but from the very nature of the laws of physics themselves.
And yet here we are.
The burden of this book is not the dangers facing us. It is that none of those dangers have come to pass. But why have they not come to pass? The more one ponders this question the more mysterious it becomes. I believe that we are faced with a mystery—a great and profound mystery, and one of immense significance: the mystery of the habitability of the cosmos, of the fitness of the environment.
Why get excited about the set of conditions required for life in general to exist? The answer is that these conditions turn out to be of an entirely different sort—they have no intrinsic relationship to one another. Each and every one of them is surprising, and they are surprising because they involve striking and remarkable coincidences. The best analogy I know of to the condition of life in the universe has been given in an article on the subject by the Canadian philosopher, John Leslie. Leslie’s analogy concerns a man sentenced to be shot at sunrise. Early in the morning he is dragged before the firing squad. He stands before it blindfolded, the commander gives the order to shoot . . . and by some extraordinary and unprecedented chain of unrelated coincidences, every last one of the rifles in the squad misfires.”
“When I first became attracted to the Anthropic Principle, I regarded it as a matter of academic interest only. I figured it would be amusing to know the conditions required for life to arise in the universe—amusing and probably instructive, but hardly of great significance. As I read the works of scientists, I kept a list. I kept reading. The list kept getting longer . . . but that was not the point. The point was its strangeness. So many coincidences! The more I read, the more I became convinced that such “coincidences” could hardly have happened by chance.
But as this conviction grew, something else grew as well. Even now it is difficult to express this “something” in words. It was an intense revulsion, and at times it was almost physical in nature. I would positively squirm with discomfort. The very thought that the fitness of the cosmos for life might be a mystery requiring solution struck me as ludicrous, absurd. I found it difficult to entertain the notion without grimacing in disgust, and well-nigh impossible to mention it to friends without apology. To admit to fellow scientists that I was interested in the problem felt like admitting to some shameful personal inadequacy.
That fearfully uncomfortably feeling arises, I understand now, because the contention that we owe our existence to a stupendous series of coincidences strikes a responsive chord. That contention is far too close for comfort to notions such as:
We are the center of the universe.
God loves humankind more than all other creatures.
The cosmos is watching over us.
The universe has a plan; we are essential to that plan.”
Mathematics and Chaos
In the past few years the scientific community has been rocked by ‘chaos theory’ which seems able to provide for theoretical (even mathematical) exploration of a vast range of phenomena which previously eluded rational or precise inquiry. To be sure, chaos theory is only one part of the developing edge of mathematics, but, from fractals to fuzzy sets, chaos theory illustrates a major area of this advance on the unknown.
To set a historical context for this, we may reflect on the invention (or discovery—the two are sometimes hard to distinguish) of digital counting (assigning numbers like one, two, three, and four to a series of objects, observations, or quantities). This must have been a profound philosophical and cognitive breakthrough. Although the origins of digital counting and the consequent implied processes of addition and subtraction are lost in the darkness of prehistory, we can well imagine that the great cultural advances of our civilization may have been built on those kinds of discoveries. We know of later advances in mathematical sophistication provided by the ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks, and we know that great advances of civilization were furthered by this increasing mathematical sophistication. It was as if the world of human observation and experience was chaotic and ununderstandable; it could not be measured or counted; it did not seem to have mathematical patterns. And then aspects of this chaotic field gradually yielded to mathematical concepts of orderly interrelationships.
In 1665 and 1666 a grand new dimension of mathematical orderliness, the calculus, was invented (or discovered) by Sir Isaac Newton and independently by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It is difficult for us to appreciate the staggering intellectual and philosophical significance of the advent of the calculus. Today, introductions to differential and integral calculus are taught in high school and early college. No advanced physical science studies and very little advanced social science studies can proceed without calculus. To understand its significance we might imagine (though it is, of course, impossible to quantify precisely) that mathematics before calculus could deal with perhaps two or three percent of human observations and experience, and that, with the added tools and concepts of calculus, mathematics could deal with five to ten percent of human observations and experiences—that gives an idea of the tremendous significance of calculus.
Over the past three centuries since the advent of calculus, there have been many important advances in mathematics. Most of these were built on a calculus base. Some of them such as probability theory, statistics, and risk analysis have special significance for understanding the fringes of exploration or “higher dimensions of wholism” in our modern world and are discussed at greater length later in this section under the title “Risk.” However, the island of phenomena which could be dealt with mathematically, though it has grown, has existed in a vast sea of unanalyzable, undifferentiable chaos, turbulence, cacophony, and darkness. In a wholistic frame of mind we would have suspected that there were higher, subtler kinds of mathematical relationships to be discovered in that sea.
In recent years, chaos theory with its cascading bifurcations, strange attractors, butterfly effects, exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions, and susceptibility to subtle resonance control has opened vast new looks into that dark sea. Chaos ‘orderliness’ has been found in tides and weather, social movements and epidemics, atomic and crystalline formations, and many other areas. Many branches of physical and social sciences seem at this present moment to stand awestruck on the threshold of wondrous new discoveries using these new conceptual tools. Chaos theory is truly one of the exciting modern areas of higher dimensions of wholism.
More immediately relevant, perhaps, to our daily lives is the area of higher dimensions of wholism under the general term ‘risk’. It is not a new idea that the world and our daily lives are full of dangers. Humans have always felt themselves ‘at risk’ from illness, injury, and the various whims of fate. Much of the passion and pain of human existence comes out of these concerns. Much of the pride and heroism of human life has emerged from confrontation with the dark, unpredictable unknown. In the staunch poetic images of William Ernest Henley—
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
– “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley
Yet in recent years ‘risk’ has taken on new dimensions. For one thing, some people would say that the risks added to human experience are subtler, more terrifying, and vaster in scope. In recent years we have added to the traditional burden of human risks threats due to humanity’s flirtation with nuclear energy ranging from undetectable cancer-causing radiation to catastrophic holocaust and annihilation. We have added environmental risks ranging from powerful but invisible poisons to ecological disasters. And we have created facile international finance, thereby raising the risk of worldwide economic collapse.
But the kind of change in risks to which we are referring is different from these. It is in our ways of thinking about risk and our understanding of it. For example, questions of individual versus societal responsibility for health and well-being have been raised in strikingly new ways and with vastly broader scope. The massive proliferation of the insurance industries, of government consumer-protection and welfare programs, of disability and liability claims—these and other changes are indications of our changing cultural perceptions of risk. There are broad new patterns emerging in our thinking about risk. This is a significant area of higher dimensions of wholism with profound evolving effects on our lives.
Intuition and Inspiration
By ‘intuition’ we mean a sense of knowing—a sense of understanding a connection or a pattern—which is not derived from orderly or thorough observation, or from logical thought. Intuition is another area (or perhaps group of areas) of higher dimensions of wholism, that is, aspects of the human experience from which new levels of patterns, harmonies, and interconnections emerge.
All of us have experienced hunches or guesses about things we had no way of knowing. Sometimes our hunches (or ‘intuitions’) prove to be wrong; sometimes they are remarkably and surprisingly right. Sometimes they are accompanied by a sense of sureness which is out of proportion to any logical knowledge base.
Poets and artists of all kinds rely on intuition (or ‘inspiration’) to find meaningful novelty for their creations. The poetic and artistic connections they find may be subtle and obscure but once they are detected and highlighted by the creative person, they ring a bell for others. The excitement of being audience to a creative artistic work is at least in part in recognizing for oneself the new connections, meanings, and harmonies the imagination or intuition of the artist has teased from the meaninglessness and confusion that surrounds our minds. Thus we can imagine that the realms of intuition, inspiration, and artistic creativity are ‘higher dimensions of wholism’, that is, they present areas of human experience waiting to yield new insights of patterns and connections.
Even in the sciences intuition plays an important role. Before a scientist can study or even be aware of a new pattern or law, he or she must conceive of its possibility. This is the process of hypothesis formulation, the setting up of theories to be tested.
Often in the progress of science, one sees remarkable serendipity, the lucky discovery of one thing while looking for something else. But even with serendipity, as Louis Pasteur noted, “chance favors only the mind that is prepared.” One must conceive of a certain possibility before one can make an observation. Thus the discoveries of science are also carved from the strange and confusing unknowns that surround scientific knowledge—another example of higher dimensions of wholism.
Unrecognized Ambiguity and Concept Transfer
When Bad Things Happen to “Good Questions”
The Unexpected Demise of “Can Creativity Be Taught?”
and Other Favorites
Some problems that can be grandly characterized as “confronting the human mind” are set-ups. We like having them around — they make us feel rather grand — but we’re not really working on them. The Greeks used questions like “What is Truth?” and “What is Beauty?” Socrates made his reputation by inveigling people into feeling rather proud of their interest in such questions, and then getting them all tangled up in their own foolishness.
Medieval scholars liked “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and “Why does God permit evil?” Nowadays we are so sophisticated that we automatically scoff at such questions. Nowadays we prefer questions like “Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?” and “Do computers really think?”
Questions such as these which are more ego-boosters than problems we are working on come in assorted sizes and on a great many topics. There are questions about “relationships” (“Can a marriage ever work?” “What do children need?”); about the future (“Will they ever invent time-travel?” “Is immortality possible?”); about health, wealth, music, politics, cooking, and just about any other subject.
Sometimes philosophers make us give up bunches of these questions. Logical positivists were real wet blankets about the kinds of questions we were allowed to ask (those based on “analytic” definitions or on “synthetic” descriptions of experience — and that was it). Existentialists said we weren’t supposed to care. And general semanticists disallowed lots of these ego-boosting questions as having mixed levels of abstraction, undefined terms, etc.
Scientists are spoilers in this game sometimes, too. Psychoanalysts reportedly understand a lot of these questions, but unless you have personally had at least 40 years of intensive psychoanalytic training, there is no point in their even trying to explain the answers to you. Quantum physicists, on the other hand, live in their own Alice-in-Wonderland world of probability waves (referred to with a wistful psi) where nothing exists for sure, anything is more or less possible (possibility being the square root of probability), but where you are never, never, never allowed speculations counter to fact (“SCFs”) — milk, once spilt, exists immutably.
The social sciences — lurking as they do between the cool, breathtaking precision of the physical sciences and the fairy foothills of philosophy — revel in and reek of such ego-boosting pseudo-questions. These are social scientists’ stock in trade. Educators, for example, grandly struggle with questions about “teaching” and “thinking,” “imagination” and “recall” — there are thousands of such ego-boosting pseudo-questions that form the matrix of the “academic discipline” of education.
That this is a set-up becomes painfully clear when, every so often, one of our pet questions — some conundrum which we trusted to be profound and elusive — is inadvertently answered. Two things happen. Those few members of the profession who are confronted with the answer are flabbergasted at the breakthrough; their colleagues who have been able to avoid the confrontation ignore it — and go about their professional business wisely stroking their chins and furrowing their foreheads about the same questions just as if nothing had happened.
Recently there have been a couple of such breakthroughs. One came cuddling into the corner of the social sciences as a stray from the humanities. It is flabbergasting as a breakthrough; but also, its significance is easy to miss (or ignore).
Let’s look at the arrival of this concept. Have you ever wondered “What makes humor funny?” A lot of people have. It’s one of those delicious conundrums that we feel grand to muse about (but which we secretly believe are unanswerable). The psychoanalysts have an answer: humor is based on the sudden release of repressed forbidden impulses. If you have enough years of personal, intensive psychoanalytic training this becomes a meaningful and useful answer. We can take the psychoanalysts’ word for that. There have been a number of other struggles with the question, but no very satisfying answer has emerged. Most of us have assumed it is one of those ego-boosting pseudo-questions.
And then, almost embarrassingly, along came an answer to the question “What makes humor funny?” It is an answer which is simple, elegant, and clear; it always works; and it always differentiates humor from non-humor.
Do you notice your mind rebelling against the possibility that there could be such as answer? Please watch your mind process it. The answer: humor is funny when (or because) it reveals a previously unrecognized ambiguity.
To elaborate, a joke or humorous situation has two parts: a premise or preparation, and a punch line or moment when the plug is pulled and the humor is revealed. The punch line works (is funny) because of a surprising dependence on an unrecognized ambiguity in the premise.
One early presentation of this used the following example (John Durant and Jonathan Miller, editors, Laughing Matters: A Serious Look at Humour, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1988). The premise or preparation: You are approached by the annoying neighborhood borrower who asks, “Will you be using your lawn mower this afternoon?” To put the pest off you answer, “Yes.” The punch line: “Then may I borrow your golf clubs?” Why is the “golf clubs” punch line funny whereas such alternatives as “That’s too bad,” “Can I help you mow your lawn?” “May I borrow it when you’re done?” and “Go to Hell” are not? The “golf clubs” line is the only one that reveals a surprising dependence on an unrecognized ambiguity in the preparation or premise — which might be phrased, “I suspect the pest wants to borrow my lawn mower (but, it turns out, actually wants me to admit I won’t be using my golf clubs).” Pick any joke. It works.
In a similar way, the questions “What is creative thinking?” and “Can people be taught to think creatively?” have generally (secretly) been considered ego-boosting pseudo-questions. To be sure, social scientists have chipped away at the edges of those questions, and sometimes with useful results. The general process that goes under such terms as brainstorming, divergent thinking, alogical associations, right-brain, and free associations is valid and helpful. It can be conceptualized, taught, and practiced. But it doesn’t explain in a clear or satisfying way why or how it works. For another example, few would argue with the idea that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Sir Isaac Newton and the falling apple that supposedly led to his discovery of the law of gravity is the classic example of this. A good many people had previously experienced falling objects without invoking the product of the masses or the inverse square of the distance. But how (or why) did he? Is it possible for us to know?
Surprisingly, the answer is “yes.” For there has been another recent inadvertent (embarrassing) breakthrough answer to some questions we had confidently come to assume were of the ego-boosting, unanswerable, pseudo-question type. Those questions: “What is creative thinking?” “How is it done?” “Can it be taught?”
Three Ingredients of Creative Thinking
The answer: “Creative thinking is concept transfer” and “People can be taught to define and carve up concepts, use them as tools of thought, and transfer them freely, glibly, here and there, wherever their eyes or interests may fall.” Newton had certain mathematical concepts he was using in other regards; he “discovered” the law of gravity by transferring them into that area of observation. Again and again when we look at discovery, at creative thinking, we find concept transfer.
Moreover, students can be taught to tease out the common elements of a “concept,” to define concepts, to make up, carve up, and paste up concepts. And they can be led (or driven) to practice pasting up trial concepts here and there and everywhere, just for fun, to see how many different, weird, and playful ways the nugget concepts they choose can be played with. And what emerges is…creative thinking.
Some educators have come close to this idea. D. N. Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education emphasized teaching “tactics” which means expanding the students’ repertoire of strategies that can be deployed for a thinking task. And he defined “thinking frames” as guides to organizing and supporting thought processes. His “frames” were rules of thumb which students are directed to apply across a wide range of contexts D. N. Perkins, “Thinking Frames: An Integrative Perspective on Teaching Cognitive Skills,” in Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice, Joan Baron and Robert Sternberg, editors, New York: W. H. Freeman, 1987).
This comes close to the idea that concepts can be adopted from just about anywhere, and they can be defined and redefined — carved up, pasted together, and re-carved — and, very importantly, that this can be experienced as a conscious, practiced, cognitive skill. The nugget idea is concept transfer.
The world needs creative thinking. And now we can teach it. It may be embarrassing for creative thinking to lose some of its mystery and elusiveness, but there has never been a shortage of ego-boosting pseudo-questions to fill the gap caused by any that were inadvertently answered. In fact, here comes one now rushing forward to grasp the standard of its fallen comrade before the banner of education can touch the ground. “Are there really ever any brand new ideas?” or is creative thinking all concept transfer, since so much of it seems to be? No, there must be new ideas. Otherwise that would be like the flea-market resolution of the Creationist/Evolutionist debate — nothing was ever manufactured; it all just came from previous flea markets.
OK, “Where do new ideas come from?”
(1) Are they planted in the brain’s hardware waiting to be awakened (like the oriole’s song, or the ducklings’ attachment to Konrad Lorenz)?
(2) Are they macromolecular manifestations of quantum indeterminacy (as Roger Penrose has recently suggested)?
(3) Are they whispered by muses or fairy spirits (as some poets assure us)?
(4) Are they granted from on high (as mystics of all ages have proclaimed)?
(5) Or do they perhaps arise from wholistic synergies — as greater wholes are formed, do they truly have properties which are not implicit in their parts (per Jan C. Smuts)?
(6) Are brand new ideas explainable from chaos theory (simple equations can be pushed to indeterminate results, there are strange attractors, the butterfly effect, and all that)?
(7) Do brand new ideas emerge from cross-cultural differences in semantic preparation (Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, et al.)?
(8) Are they generated from the deep structure of our grammar (Noam Chomsky)?
(9) Do they distill out of artistic creativity?
(10) Do they emerge from “the seething caldron of the id” (Sigmund Freud)?
(11) Or from the “collective unconscious” of our species (Carl Jung)?
(12) Perhaps even from an extended collective unconscious shared with other species, other planets, other ages?