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Webs of Life: Holistic vs. Atomistic Thinking

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[Note: as with all things emanating from the Theosophical Society, you have to take them with a big lump of salt... nevertheless, I thought this article was worth reading. -DS]

THE second section of Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life, "The Rise of Systems Thinking," begins with a discussion of "From the Parts to the Whole." Other words for "systems" in the expression "systems thinking" are holistic, ecological and systemic. Thinking that emphasizes "the Parts" is often referred to as mechanistic or atomistic. Systems thinking is not only comprehensive but widely useful, the kind of thinking needed to design utopian communities like Plato's Republic and great works of art. In other disciplines it leads to innovative inventions and the development of perceptive theories in the complex realms of mathematics and physics. Imaginative geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein naturally thought in a holistic manner. As a consequence, their perceptive works reflected the future in art and science.


Fritjhof Capra

Thinking from the viewpoint of the whole is not new to philosophers and their pupils. Ancient forms of wisdom include the Indian scriptures, Buddhism and Platonism. All use holistic thinking, opening doors with analogy as a key ("as above so below"). In different terms, seekers after truth can grasp a concept that seems beyond their understanding by first comprehending a similar but simpler concept. Sometimes the analogy takes the form of myth or parable. Euclid's geometry illustrates the point with progressively complex theorems and propositions, starting with a small number of simple common-sense assumptions (axioms).

Intuitive and rational thinking play an important role in cognition by parable, analogy, correspondence and myth. Intuitive perception comes first; rational thinking follows. Myth and parable fire up the intuition. Analogy and correspondence use intuition in a rational manner. Universal "web" patterns are found in higher realms of thought -- philosophical, theological and scientific. In mathematical and symbolic art, the principle is illustrated by fractal patterns, where each element and sub-element mirrors the design of the whole. The fractal may be looked at as a dynamic kind of web. Biological systems follow similar but more complex patterns.


The classic struggle in biology between mechanism and holism reflects the basic conflict between Platonic and Aristotelian thought. During the Middle Ages church leaders adopted Aristotelian logic, which included a mechanical version of biology, to suppress the free thought of independent thinkers. Everything had to be tied up in nice little dogmatic bundles. In Europe the theosophical movement, linked closely with Gnostic, Pythagorean, Platonic and Neo-platonic thought, often had to go underground to survive during a dark period in Western history.

Capra writes: "At the dawn of Western philosophy and science, the Pythagoreans distinguished 'number,' or pattern, from substance, or matter... As Gregory Bateson put it:

The argument took the shape of 'Do you ask what it's made of....' Or do you ask, 'What is its pattern?' Pythagoreans stood for inquiring into pattern rather than inquiring into substance."

Plato and his academy followed the Pythagorean mystery tradition. Capra continues:

    Aristotle, the first biologist in the Western tradition, also distinguished between matter and form.... In contrast with Plato, Aristotle believed that form had no separate existence but was immanent in matter. Nor could matter exist separately from form. Matter, according to Aristotle, contains the essential nature of all things, but only as potentiality.

    H. P. Blavatsky gives ample evidence of the metaphysical origin of mathematics and numbers. One need only read the Stanzas of the Secret Doctrine to appreciate the occult and symbolic nature of Number. Pattern is clearly indicated by certain numbers, and Number itself seems to be the grand archetype of all patterns. The concept of Number is perhaps just a mask for mighty spiritual forces behind visible and invisible "Web of Life" patterns. These forces are unleashed by enduring Reality to contrast with the evanescent nature of matter (substance).


Helena Blavatsky

    Number could be said to be a reflection of Reality in ways understandable to human beings. The 10th and 11th chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita illustrate the patterns and many forms that the Real works through. However, Arjuna and most struggling humans are overwhelmed by vast arrays of universal forms (patterns). At this stage of their earth evolution humans must limit conscious visions of Reality to survive in a world of illusion. Only at night in the high spiritual state of "deep sleep" are humans privileged to have glimpses of what is Real and what illusion.


Among renowned Renaissance materialists following Aristotelian concepts were Galileo Galilei and Rene Descartes. Capra holds that Galileo's preoccupation with quantification and measurement led science to disregard quality. He quotes psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who wrote:

    Galileo's program offers us a dead world: Out go sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, and along with them have since gone esthetic and ethical sensibility, values, quality, soul, consciousness, spirit.

    Descartes is credited with creating modern analytic thinking, which breaks "complex phenomena into parts to understand the behavior of the whole from the properties of its parts." This approach is the opposite of systems thinking. It is like trying to create a whole web by examining a single strand of the web. One strand gives no analytical clue to the overall pattern, just as a single brick or stone gives no visible clue to the architecture of a building. The web and plan of a building are patterns generated on inner levels with sub-human instinct or human mind.

    In weaving its web, even the lowly spider instinctively knows the pattern before starting and can repeat it without hesitation over and over. The instinct of the spider works from within without and is in no way analytical. On the human level, a person with psychometric powers can sense a piece of almost anything and project its history, which includes whole patterns. The art of psychometry is akin to looking at a fractal pattern and knowing that a small piece mirrors the pattern of the whole. A wise psychometer sees beyond mere patterns, which are still only partial truth to the world of causes in a field that includes many lifetimes.

    Cartesian thinking obscured the distinction between mind and matter by viewing living organisms as mere mechanical entities. Discoveries in chemistry at this time softened the views of the mechanists although Newtonian mechanics seemed to confirm them. We should note that Newton himself had a strong interest in occult ideas, which he put into writing. His later supporters carefully suppressed those writings to avoid clouding Newton's scientific reputation. He probably would have disapproved of their actions. A similar thing happened to Darwin, whose careful observations and theories were distorted by some of his supporters.


William Blake, mystical English poet and artist, Immanuel Kant, renowned German philosopher, the poet Goethe, and others involved in the Romantic Movement in art and philosophy strongly opposed the views of the mechanists with ecological concepts. They viewed nature as "one great harmonious whole" (Goethe), reviving the old pantheistic concept of an Earth Goddess, the Greek Gaia, who was the supreme deity. This idea prevailed among the common people long before and after Greek civilization and has been revived lately in the "Gaia Hypothesis." We will discuss this hypothesis in a later article.


An 18th Century Scottish geologist James Hutton and the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt espoused the Romanticist concept of a living Earth. These views grew stronger in the latter part of the 18th and the early 19th Century. Later in the 19th Century, slightly before the time the modern theosophical movement was launched, there was a movement back to mechanistic views. Discoveries in the biological sciences (Rudolph Virchow's cell theory, Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease, and research in microbiology) contributed to the reverse swing. The focus changed from the organism to the cell to explain complex biological processes with physics and chemistry. The 19th Century materialists thought they had new ammunition.

Capra comments:

    While cell biology made enormous progress in understanding the structures and functions of many of the cell's subunits, it remained largely ignorant of the coordinating activities that integrate those operations into the functioning of the cell as a whole.


In support of the holistic viewpoint, two noteworthy movements arose: Vitalism and Organicism. The German embryologist Hans Driesch around the start of the 20th century launched vitalism. He was looking for the missing pattern of organization, known to students of Theosophy as the astral body, and introduced a word coined by Aristotle, entelechy, but giving it a different meaning. More recently the English biologist and writer Rupert Sheldrake formulated a more sophisticated version of vitalism that "postulates the existence of nonphysical morphogenetic fields." The Lookout section of this magazine has noted the work of both men.

Many proponents of the newer movement, organicism, were initially vitalists. This movement holds that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Students of Theosophy can see how these views clearly support the theosophical concept of the existence of an invisible but enduring soul as well as the normally invisible astral body behind the physical. William Q. Judge calls the astral body the "real physical" in his Ocean of Theosophy. That is, the visible physical world would have no existence without the world of the astral as its model.

Some of the pioneers of organismic biology are Ross Harrison, Lawrence Henderson, Joseph Woodger and Joseph Needham. Needham later became a leading historian of Chinese science. Woodger and other organicists wrote of the hierarchical nature of living organisms. In Capra's words:

    Indeed, an outstanding property of all life is the tendency to form multilevel structures of systems within systems. Each of these forms a whole with respect to its parts while at the same time being a part of a larger whole. Thus cells combine to form tissues, tissues to form organs, and organs to form organisms. These in turn exist within social systems and ecosystems.


The word "system" has its root in the Greek synhistanai, which means literally "to place together." The purpose of placing together, or in context, is to understand relationships. Capra makes an important point on the common tendency to dissect systems:

    According to the systems view, the essential properties of an organism, or living system, are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. ... These properties are destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements.

The shock of systems thinking in physics was even greater in physics than in biology. Physicists were used to thinking of atomic particles as isolated entities. Capra quotes Henry Stapp: "An elementary particle is not an independently existing unanalyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things." Werner Heisenberg, a founder of quantum theory, held similar views.

Quantum theory deals with probabilities "determined by the dynamics of the whole system." This is a big step away from the older method of determining the behavior of the whole from the behavior of its parts. We will deal more with Quantum theory in a later article. For now let us end this article with a few words on ecology.

The word "ecology" is derived from the Greek word oikos for "household," meaning the Earth Household. The German biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term in 1866. A new vocabulary of ecological terms gradually evolved that most schoolchildren are now familiar with. Among the terms are: environment, biosphere, and "the web of life." All these terms are holistic in implication and perhaps indicate that "a new order of the ages" for mankind is at hand. Certainly, the coming century will be one of great importance, as indicated by H. P. Blavatsky. Let us all do some systems thinking and make the most of it!


If only more of the technology-oriented would consider realms of thought such as these. It's really missing from our world-view. This stuff is a bit "spooky" but a lot of it is very interesting.

When someone uses "the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts", they are implying that the individual parts (in which the parts cannot interact, as they are isolated) are different to the parts in the whole (in which the parts can interact), which to me invalidates any comparison between the parts and the whole.

So, relating this to holistic vs. atomistic thinking, the advantage of holistic seems to be that a property of a “part” may not be obviously apparent when it is isolated, but when it is interacting with other “parts” in a “whole” the previously not obvious property may now be very apparent and the model you have of the “part” may now be updated with this new information.

If an emergent property falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

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