A holistic science of qualities
Excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability
The emerging holistic sciences are characterized by a series of shifts in perspective. Among these shifts are the following:
- A shift from focusing on quantities and measurement to focusing on qualities of interactions and direct experience
- As shift from mechanistic metaphors towards organismic metaphors that are more appropriate to describe the processes of life
- A shift from a science that tries to maximize our ability to predict and control nature towards a new understanding that aims for appropriate participation in the processes that support all life on Earth
- A shift from an evolutionary theory mainly focused on scarcity, individualism, and competition towards an understanding of evolution based on abundance, diversity, symbiosis, and cooperation
- A shift away from the myth of the independent, detached, objective observer towards understanding science as a participatory activity based on inter-subjective consensus building
- A shift from a single minded focus on reductionism towards a more holistic science that acknowledges reductionism as a useful approach but also aims for more holistic and systemic interpretations of the complex problems we are facing
- A shift from the monopoly of rationalism towards acknowledging the crucial roles that intuition, imagination, and creativity play in science to complement and guide rational and analytical approaches to understanding nature
[Note: While this list falls into the trap of framing the characteristics of holistic science in a from-to framing of seemingly dualistic opposites, it should really be thought of as a ‘transcend and include’. Reductionist, analytical, quantity focussed science and even mechanistic explanatory frameworks do have their place, but not when they become the only epistemology considered valid and informative.]
This list is by no means complete and the emergence of a more holistic and participatory science of qualities will continue to inform and transform the way we do science. As we are moving towards a more holistic understanding of life, some of the metaphors that have also guided our cultural and economic life may change too.
Fritjof Capra suggests that: “Life is much less a competitive struggle for survival than a triumph of cooperation and creativity” (Capra, 1996, p.238). This single shift in perspective, or organizing idea, lies at the core of our collective attempt to co-create a more just and more sustainable world together.
“Darwinism sees the living process in terms that emphasize competition, inheritance, selfishness, and survival as the driving forces of evolution. These are certainly aspects of the remarkable drama that includes our own history as a species. But it is a very incomplete and limited story, both scientifically and metaphorically, based upon an inadequate view of organisms; and it invites us to act in a limited way as an evolved species in relation to our environment, which includes other cultures and species. These limitations have contributed to some of the difficulties we now face, such as the crisis of environmental deterioration, pollution, decreasing standards of health and quality of life, and loss of communal values. But Darwinism short-changes us as regards our biological natures. We are every bit as co-operative as we are competitive; as altruistic as we are selfish; as creative and playful as we are destructive and repetitive. And we are biologically grounded in relationships which operate at all the levels of our being as the basis of our nature as agents of creative evolutionary emergence, a property we share with all other species.”
— Brian Goodwin (1994, p.xiv).
The process of life itself — diversifying, evolving, and complexifying — is the pattern that connects which Heraclitus spoke of two millennia ago when he spoke of the hidden connections of nature. Gregory Bateson was one of the first to understand the human mind as a conscious reflection of the processes of Nature.
Fritjof Capra describes the central insight of this theory as “the identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the process of life.” For Maturana and Varela cognition can be understood as “the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living networks.” In this context, cognition is recognized as “the very process of life,” and “mind — or, more accurately, mental activity — is immanent in matter at all levels of life” (Capra, 2002, p.30).
The implications of this insight radically alter our understanding of mind and matter, as well as humanity and nature. A civilization informed by such an understanding will express fundamentally different intentions through fundamentally different design.
In their groundbreaking book The Tree of Knowledge, Maturana and Varela (1987) suggest that as we are beginning to understand how we know, we have to realize that “the world everyone sees is not the world but a world which we bring forth with others.” Maturana’s ‘biology of love’ suggests that love is the central process by which we bring forth the world. The world as we know it emerges out of the way we relate to each other and to natural process. This leads Maturana and Varela to the important conclusion:
“The world will be different only if we live differently.”
— Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela, 1987
Before is early death in 2004 Francisco Varela directed the Mind & Life Institute, which regularly organizes meetings between de Dalai Lama and leading scientists. …
Note: This is an excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability. In 2012 I was asked to rewrite this dimension as part of a collaboration between Gaia Education and the Open University of Catalunya (UOC) and in 2016 I revised it again into this current version. The next opportunity to join the course is with the start of the Worldview Dimension on May 21st, 2018. You might also enjoy my book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’.