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SCIENCE

SCIENCE

Holistic Science

by Stephan Harding & Philip Franses

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Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), Canada: produced by the action of solar wind on the atmosphere at the Pole. Photo, Paul Nicklen

Stephan Harding writes:

Holistic science concerns itself with the rigorous and integrated deployment of the full capacities of the human psyche in order to develop a deeply and truly participative relationship with nature. In this respect it differs from mainstream science, which believes that we can gain reliable knowledge of the world only through analytical mathematical reasoning in order to one day achieve the ideal of complete dominance and control of nature.

The mainstream approach is hugely powerful and has yielded volumes of valuable information, but, sadly, it has unwittingly contributed to the appalling ecological and social crises that we face in our times because of a blind spot that was deliberately built into it when it was created during the 16th and 17th centuries. In essence, the great pioneering scientific geniuses of those times focussed only on quantities and saw the universe and indeed any phenomenon whatsoever as nothing more than a machine which could only be fully understood by reducing it down to its essential building blocks. Quantification, mechanism, and reduction: one could say that these have been the three cornerstones of science during the past four centuries or so.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with these corner stones, it’s just that by discounting the other ways of knowing that come to us through intuition, sensing and feeling they have given us a distorted, one-eyed view of the world. In particular, mainstream science has ignored qualities such as the beauty of a landscape or our sense of vitality and health of an ecosystem because there appears to be no way to measure these aspects of the world. As a result, nature has been seen as nothing more than a storehouse of resources to be plundered without let or hindrance.

In holistic science we develop rigorous methodologies for healing these limitations, and in the process we discover that we heal both ourselves and the world. Firstly, we encounter the living qualities of a given phenomenon through the careful cultivation of our direct sensory perceptions together with our intuitive capacity for spontaneously apprehending the intrinsic wholeness and deep inner meaning that lies hidden at the heart of things. This is the practice of Goethe’s science, which brings with it a profound ethical concern for the welfare of whatever we are studying. Then we use our rational faculties to explore the phenomenon as a ‘complex system’. We build mathematical models of the relationships amongst the components of the system in order to explore the emergent properties and behaviours that often arise unexpectedly and unpredictably from these interactions, thereby encountering the limitations of rational knowledge itself.

In these ways holistic scientists embark on a transformative journey towards wholeness by cultivating their intuition, sensing, feeling and thinking in the practice of science as a kind of alchemical journey, as a refinement of the soul. In the process one becomes able to skilfully apply these four ways of knowing in any given situation. For example, in some cases it might be necessary to temporarily adopt a mechanistic style of thinking to solve a problem, or to use the reductionist approach, or even to sideline the qualitative aspect of things altogether. A holistic scientist will use these approaches with the awareness that they are merely tools to be taken up and set down as is appropriate, for ultimately we discover that it is our intuitive perceptions (often supported or even triggered by mathematical reasoning) that provide the most rewarding and profoundly healing insights into the wholeness of nature


Philip Franses writes:

Exact and reductive science has its own value. By contrast, the process of holistic science is one of discovery—for oneself and through one’s own life work– of wholeness through the exploration of the Universe and its meaning.  Finding the holistic thread in the tapestry of our learned experience, it leads the reductive mindset of focussed inquiry to confront its own nemesis. We enter the labyrinth of self-deception but are not afraid of its illusory quality. As perception investigates its own inner eye, it discovers how to release itself.

Ariadne's Thread (named after the legend of Theseus, Ariadne and the Labyrinth) is a term describing the process of solving a problem through multiple apparent means of proceeding. There is an exhaustive application of logic to all available routes. All steps are completely traced and all findings examined in a contingent, ordered search, till the desired end is reached. The process may assume the form of a mental record, physical marking or philosophical debate. And the thread of Ariadne that leads us to wholeness must be spun out of the materials of who we are. The thread of each issue is made up with elements of science, philosophy, curiosity and memories of wholeness or fragmentation. Indeed, what is recovered from our origins may well include wasted pieces of our individuality, thrown away in the classrooms of our childhood.

The Western scientific method is dominated by the idea that natural phenomena can be explained and understood in terms of their smallest parts. In light of the global ecological and social crises, the dominance of this approach in science has become very questionable. Schumacher College’s MSc in Holistic Science is taught by Harding & Franses. It makes use of new transdisciplinary methodologies to recognize that complex systems have “emergent properties”, describes their characteristics as wholes and explores how their properties are conditioned (rather than determined) by their constituent parts. Whole systems are investigated at all levels from individual organisms to organizations, and from ecosystems to the Earth. The Holistic Science Journal addresses how to overcome the limitations of exact science through cultivating direct sensory perception & our intuitive capacity for apprehending wholeness & deep inner meaning.


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