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Holism is any attitude toward explanation that places emphasis on the importance of a whole system as against that of its individual parts. Holism is thus an epistemological term, reflecting a particular approach to explanation. The term was first used in English by South African statesman and author Jan Christiaan Smuts in 1926. Its roots within Western philosophy, however, go back to the German thinker George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), with his insistence that "the truth is the whole."

The concept of holism is important to three areas of the science-religion debate: (1) in the philosophy of science, where it is in particular tension with falsificationism; (2) in considerations of causation, including divine action, where holism is in tension with reductionism; and (3) in ecological thinking, where it is in tension with dualism and anthropocentrism.

Holism in the philosophy of science rests on an insight initially developed by Pierre Duhem (18611916), and refined by W. V. O. Quine (19082000), to the effect that scientific theories face the bar of experience as a whole, as a complex web of interrelated postulates and hypotheses. When an experimental result conflicts with current theory, proponents of the theory have a wide choice as to which elements to re-evaluate, not only altering the hypothesis being tested, but rejecting the result as an artifact, rejecting the apparatus as inappropriate, questioning the mathematical framework used to draw inferences from the result, or altering other hypotheses to fit the data. This runs counter to Karl Popper's proposal that science unfolds by a process of empirical falsification of discrete hypotheses.

Holism in the debate about causation

In discussions of holism and causation it is necessary to mention an important result in quantum theory, as well as a wider debate as to whether systems in any way cause the behaviour of their parts.

Quantum holism.

It is a remarkable feature of the mathematical framework of quantum mechanics that all the elements of an interacting system must be considered together. The wave function of all the components of a quantum system is collapsed by contact with an act of measurement, which gives rise to a definite behavior in all the particles concerned, be they electrons, photons, or some other particle. Thus, measurement of an electron's spin could simultaneously determine the spin of another electron with which it had once been paired, even if the second particle were on the other side of the universe. However, the EPR Paradox proposed by Albert Einstein and colleagues in the 1930s challenged this view. The experimental vindication of the predicted quantum result by physicist Alain Aspect in 1982 confirmed that reality must be viewed as more interconnected than classical science would have supposed. The Aspect result has given rise to highly speculative proposals, including explanations for telepathy. The precise implications of nonlocal interactions between quantum particles remain unclear.

Whole-part causation.

Can the behavior of individual elements of a system be influenced by the character of the larger system of which they are a part? That the answer to this is "yes" can be demonstrated in quite simple chemical systems, such as the Bénard cell, where coordinated geometric structures form when a liquid is heated in a certain way. A commonsense view of conscious agency might suggest that this sort of causation is also present when a person decides to move his arm. Donald T. Campbell and Roger W. Sperry developed the concept of top-down causation to describe instances in which larger wholes constrain the behavior of their components. This remains a contentious area of debate, especially in the study of the mind-brain relationship, where it focuses on the question as to what is doing the causing, other than the component neurons of the brain.

However, few thinkers would not concede that complex entities such as the cell, the multicellular organism, and the ecosystem, do have to be described in terms of emergent properties, types of explanation not necessary for lower levels of complexity. For example, molecules such as hormones are sent round the human body as "messengers," reflecting the state of the body as a whole. These messages change the state of molecules within the cells they reach. Moreover, the science of chaos emphasises that the behavior of many important types of systems, from the weather to the human heart, is exquisitely sensitive to the boundary conditions of the system. These considerations limit the effectiveness of scientific reductions, efforts to describe complex phenomena in terms of their component parts. The attempt to effect such reductions is essential to scientific methodology, but the experience of science is that explanations in terms of the functioning of larger wholes remain indispensable.

Two words of caution are in order in developing holistic accounts of causation. First, the previous paragraph simply states that description in terms of wholes influencing parts is a necessary explanatory device within scientific epistemology. It does not, however, establish an ontology of efficient causes of the sort to which the physics of forces lays claim. Second, sensitivity to initial conditions shows how important the overall environment is to chaotic systems; even a tropical rainforest is a whole within larger wholes.

John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke have taken a lead in proposing that top-down causation can function as an analogy for the activity of God within the created order. Polkinghorne has focused on the mathematics of chaos as indicative of the flexibility and openness of creation to the input of divine information. In response to criticism that the equations of chaos are fundamentally deterministic, he speculates whether they may only be approximations to a more holistic account of reality. Peacocke's emphasis is, rather, on (1) the hierarchy of emergent properties of the universe and (2) that assertion that interaction between God and human minds is the highest known level of that hierarchy. Peacocke's terminology for the sort of physical causation to which divine action might be analogous has shifted from whole-part causation, to whole-part constraint, and finally to whole-part influence.

The words of caution above show the difficulties of the analogy. There is no model for how wholes can be causally effective, other than through the causal interactions of their components, and there are no wholes in the cosmos that are not themselves wholes-within-environments. Models of divine agency that stress whole-part causation do no more than indicate that two analogies may be somewhat helpful: the analogy of human mind-in-body conscious agency, and the analogy of God as the environment of the world.

Holism in ecological thinking

Discussions of holism in ecology draw on American naturalist Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac (1949), in which he emphasizes the importance of the overall health of the biotic community. These discussions also draw on the insistence of Norwegian philosopher and ecologist Arne Naess as to the need for a "deep-ecological" attention to the whole network of relationships in an ecosystem. These emphases marked an ethical shift away from a focus on the interests of humans (anthropocentrism), and towards a sense that humans are no more than one part of the natural world. This sense is thus in tension with any dualistic view of humans that values only the status of their souls.

The understanding of the relation between humans and the nonhuman world is a major interface between scientific exploration of ecosystems and religious and ethical perspectives. The deep-ecological emphasis on the moral status of whole systems serves as a provocative corrective to the assumption that environmental problems can be best resolved by hierarchical, technocratic thinking. However, such holism raises an important question in environmental ethics: Is the whole systembe it the Brazilian rainforest or the total biosphere of the planetthe overriding locus of value, to which other values, such as the aspirations of individual humans, should be sacrificed? At their most radical such views smack of "ecofascism," and are themselves reductive of the complexity of biological systems. An alternative view is that of Holmes Rolston III, who asserts that the system is valuable because it is the protective matrix within which other sorts of value can be exchanged. Duties to a whole ecosystem, as Don Marietta insists, supplement, rather than supplant, duties to humans and other living things.

Holism is an important ingredient in a network of philosophical and physical explanations; it becomes weakened when its adherents neglect the importance of causative and evaluative explanations in terms of the components of systems.

See also Boundary Conditions; Chaos Theory; Downward Causation; Ecology; EPR Paradox; Hierarchy; Physics, Quantum


clayton, philip. god and contemporary science. edinburgh, scottland: edinburgh university press, 1997.

marietta, don e. for people and the planet: holism and humanism in environmental ethics. philadelphia: temple university press, 1994.

polkinghorne, john. belief in god in an age of science. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1998.

rolston, holmes, iii. conserving natural value. new york: columbia university press, 1994.

russell, robert john; murphy, nancey; meyering, theo c.; arbib, michael a., eds. neuroscience and the person: scientific perspectives on divine action. vatican city and berkely, calif.: vatican observatory and center for theology and the natural sciences, 1999.

sessions, george, ed. deep ecology for the twenty-first century. boston, mass.: shambhala, 1995.

smuts, jan christiaan. holism and evolution. new york: macmillan, 1926.

southgate, christopher, ed. god, humanity, and the cosmos: a textbook in science and religion. edinburgh, uk, and harrisburg, pa.: t&t clark and trinity press international, 1999.

christopher southgate

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holism ‘My body is not a machine!’ ‘Treat the whole person!’ ‘The whole is different from the sum of the parts.’ ‘Reductionism is wrong, because organisms possess properties at a certain level of organization that cannot be explained in terms of properties at lower levels.’ ‘How people work, love, or vote is not determined by our genes!’ These are holist views.

The term ‘holism’ was coined in 1926, from the Greek holos (whole), by the South African statesman General Jan Smuts. But whilst the period between the World Wars was a heyday of holist creativity in biology and medicine, approaches that we can identify as holist are much older. Holism was the unquestioned orthodoxy of the Western tradition of practising medicine and investigating nature for the two millennia before the nineteenth century. The body was a complex system, in dynamic equilibrium with its environment, and disease a state of imbalance. Mechanistic approaches were canvassed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but they left this ancient model largely intact. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, it could be taken for granted no longer. From palatial new laboratories, mechanistic science reigned increasingly triumphant. Living organisms, once models for the entire cosmos, were now themselves modelled on industrial machines. The nervous system functioned like the telegraph, the eye like a photometer.

As the ‘century of science’ drew to a close, and especially after World War I, various scientists and intellectuals, professionals, and cultural critics pronounced a crisis of scientific confidence. They began to question the achievements of a science that was not just mechanistic but increasingly specialized and fragmented, industrialized and bureaucratic, and to express scepticism, unease, and even horror at its methods. Whilst the scientific factories efficiently probed and shocked, dissected and sliced, crushed and ground bodies into new facts, the most important problems of life, and of living, appeared to cry out for solution in vain. In reaction against ‘machine science’ holists produced new ways of knowing and healing, approaches that sought to respect rather than take apart and analyze the whole. This holism was a collection of self-consciously defensive or oppositional interventions by a wide variety of people, united — if at all — only by what they were against.

Many of the leading holists were themselves scientists. In answer to the general fragmentation of knowledge about the body, they preached synthesis and interdependence. Opposing the claims of mechanistic reductionism, they asked what kind of science could do justice to the complexity of living organisms and their purposiveness. Relativity and quantum theory were beating the old mechanistic physics on its own ground, they observed; surely it was passé still to be modelling animals on locomotives? Some embryologists, for example, followed Hans Driesch in arguing that no machine could compensate for loss of parts in the ways that embryos did. He embraced vitalism, teaching that the development of a harmonious whole embryo was guided by a non-spatial and immaterial ‘entelechy’ — but other biologists came up with organicist approaches that gave the whole embryo priority over its parts whilst remaining safely within materialist bounds. In academic psychology the Gestalt theorists, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler, claimed that not atomistic sensations but structured wholes are the primary units of mental life. And, like many holists, they were not content to reform scientific theories but also took up the challenge of finding appropriate paths to knowledge in science. Gestalt experimentation in Weimar Germany investigated the variation among perceptions not between but within individual subjects, and so opposed the administrative, classifying style of science embodied in intelligence testing that was becoming dominant in the US. The Gestalt psychologists prided themselves on doing rigorous science, but some holists explored alternative ways of knowing, such as intuition, that to most scientists smacked of the irrational, of the frankly unscientific.

Especially in medicine, holists concentrated on setting acceptable terms for the relations between the new laboratory sciences and their professional practice. Early-twentieth-century medical élites, for example, cultivated the clinical art as a mark of a gentleman. It would temper the cold precision of scientific medicine — and prevent the physician becoming a mere technician. Against the spectre of specialized and bureaucratic state medicine they defended traditional doctor–patient relationships and a medicine of the whole person. In many ways from the other side but also holistic, the mid-twentieth-century ‘social medicine’ of Oxford professor John Ryle criticized the dominant anti-bacterial and surgical strategies as narrow and blinkered. The social medicine movement showed the dependence of sickness on the social variables of lifestyle and environment, and called for medicine to move beyond the hospital and the laboratory. More widely, as people confronted the extension of mechanistic science and technology into their lives, many were moved to ask how they could avoid becoming mere cogs in its machines, and to wonder what new insights might re-enchant a world that science appeared to be emptying of meaning.

The political geography of twentieth-century holism was extremely complex. Conservatives and liberals, fascists and communists, feminists and male chauvinists, racists and internationalists were all known to help themselves to holist rhetoric. Variously opposing alienation, atheism, bureaucracy, democracy, free-market capitalism, industrialism, mass culture, and metropolitan life, some holists have sought to defend human individuality as an absolute, whilst others have subsumed individuals into groups, be they classes, nations or — as most notoriously in Nazi Germany — races. Holists have traditionally opposed the treatment of human beings as machines, but historian Jeffrey Herf has shown that in Weimar and Nazi Germany some reactionaries succeeded in reconciling their ‘hunger for wholeness’ with a cult of technology.

Holism was marginalized after World War II, but since the late 1960s holist approaches have attracted renewed interest. Many holists are outside and opposed to official science and medicine, especially in the alternative health, environmentalist, feminist, animal rights, and New Age movements. But, though generally elusive, much more holism can be found in mainstream science and medicine than their dominant reductionism would suggest. Scientists continue to model bodies on machines, but in the age of digital computers machines can do things of which turn-of-the-century holists never even dreamed. The language of DNA is among the most reductionist ever invented, but the intricacies of gene regulation can warm the cockles of a holist heart. Just as hard-headed reductionists have pragmatically factored in some complexity, so holists have typically had to accept some reductionist means. The very terms are treacherous — but the opposition endures.

Nick Hopwood


Lawrence, C. and Weisz, G. (ed.) (1998). Greater than the parts: holism in biomedicine, 1920–1950. Oxford University Press, New York.

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ho·lism / ˈhōlˌizəm/ • n. chiefly Philos. the theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts. Holism is often applied to mental states, language, and ecology. The opposite of atomism. ∎  Med. the treating of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease. DERIVATIVES: ho·list adj. & n.

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