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Worlds Within Worlds - The Holarchy of Life
by Andrew P. Smith, Oct 24, 2005
(Posted here: Sunday, May 27, 2007)


Worlds Within WorldsWestern society has long experienced a deep conflict between science and religion. Today, this conflict may not seem very serious, except for fundamentalists, both in America and abroad, who reject much of the scientific worldview. Most other people retain a belief in God as the source of ultimate meaning and purpose, while accepting science as the means of solving our everyday problems. Yet neither science nor religion alone — nor a simple belief in both of them — can provide a complete and meaningful account of our existence. The traditional religious definition of God as omniscient, omnipotent and all-compassionate is incompatible with ignorance, injustice and suffering in the world. Science, on the other hand, has thus far been unable to explain not only the ultimate question of how or why the universe arose, but the more immediate problem of human consciousness—how our first person experience of the world can be understood in terms of physical and biological processes.

Prior to the scientific revolution, the unifying worldview in the West was Aristotle's Great Chain of Being. This worldview understood all animate and inanimate existence known at that time as successive creations of the highest form of life, God. While virtually all scientists today reject the Great Chain, they do accept one of its most basic tenets: that all of existence is hierarchically organized, that is, composed of levels that can in some sense be ranked as higher or lower than other levels. Hierarchy is a key concept now in such diverse fields of study as molecular biology, cell biology, psychology, sociology, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Thus scientists recognize that atoms compose molecules, which compose cells, which compose organisms, which in turn may be part of societies. Each of these units is a "holon", that is, an integrated functional unit that is simultaneously part of a larger, more complex functional unit. For this reason, the modern hierarchy has been described by some authors as a holarchy.

In the view of some, more spiritually-inclined thinkers, however, the holarchy does not end with the world observable by science. It extends to higher levels of existence, encompassing phenomena that have been described by mystics for several thousand years. This creative leap—bold, but supported by a large body of observations—has the potential to bring both science and religion into a single worldview or paradigm. In this expanded holarchy, God is understood as the highest level of existence, and religion is the set of practices that enables human beings to realize, or participate in, this level.

Though a holarchical view of some kind is now accepted by most scientists within their field of specialization, and while several modern-day mystics have suggested its extension to higher levels of existence, there has been no serious attempt to elaborate in detail a unified view encompassing all scientific as well as spiritual realms. Worlds within Worlds provides this first comprehensive discussion, covering each level of existence, beginning with atoms and culminating in the highest levels of experience described by mystics. Bringing together a wide range of recent advances in biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, human and animal behavior, sociology, and anthropology—together with documented features of higher states of consciousness—Worlds shows how these various disciplines, currently fragmented in specialized areas, can be synthesized into an integrated holarchical view that displays unifying principles of existence that apply to life at all levels. The holarchical view of existence also brings together the latest concepts in evolutionary biology and information theory to create a dynamic new understanding of life.

chapter-by-chapter summary

Chapter 1: The Perennial Feud (begins below on this page)

Chapter 2: The Little Bang

Chapter 3: Translation, Transcription and Compression

Chapter 4: The Mind's Eye

Chapter 5: Unseen Dimensions

Chapter 6: The Unthinkable

Chapter 7: The Layer of the Law

Chapter 8: The Missing Link

Chapter 9: Darwinism Evolving

Chapter 10: Selection with Direction

Chapter 11: The Invisible Hand

Chapter 12: The Blind Watch's Maker

Chapter 13: The Planetary Holon



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"Progress in science often demands the recovery of ancient truths and their rendering in novel ways."
-Stephen Jay Gould1

"We believe that old ideas, like teleology, hierarchy and propensity, having universally lost their earlier associations under the stern discipline of modernity, are now available for new uses...and may give us a world that is at once as many-storied as the medieval and as naturalistic as the modern."
-David Depew and Bruce Weber2

Imagine an empire ruled by not one but two kings. The two monarchs are not oligarchs--rulers of equal rank who share in the leadership as partners--but independent authorities who compete for the hearts and minds of their subjects. The two kings proclaim very different things, and create very different rules for the people of this land to live by. And each king commands his own following. Some of the people of this nation are loyal to one king, listening to his words and obeying his edicts; other people are loyal to the other king.

A strange land, the reader would say. How could there be any permanent order and stability when there is no consensual leader, when people are told contradictory things by their two rulers, and must decide to follow either one or the other? Yet this rather schizoid situation is a metaphor, I believe, for our own societies in the West today. One of our kings is science. Science tells us that the basis of all existence is physical matter, and rewards our belief in this view by bestowing upon us a never-ending stream of material benefits. The other king is spirit, and insists that the basis of all existence is a higher form of life--variously referred to as God or universal consciousness. This king rewards our loyalty with benefits of a very different kind: morals, values, and meaning.

To be fair, science and spirit are not completely antagonistic towards one another. Some people would even argue that there is no inherent conflict between their views at all--that each reigns supreme within its area of authority. "I don't see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis," concedes evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, whose willingness to think beyond conventional scientific boundaries is evident in several challenges he has mounted to his field's founding father, Darwin. "But I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict."3 This is diplomatic advice, reflecting the kind of live-and-let-live attitude that has helped church and state coexist fairly peacefully--in some places, at least--for several centuries. But to many on either side of this chasm, Gould's position is a cop-out. I think I speak for many on one side when I say that I don't like to be told there are limits to what I can know. But I also speak for those on the other side who point out that there is more than one way of knowing.

Can we not have one worldview that understands both ways of knowing, one that incorporates both science and spirit? We might better first ask: can we have any worldview that doesn't? Spirit without science, otherwise known as religion, clearly doesn't work. In its hardline forms, exemplified by Biblical literalists and some New Age cults, it refuses to concede to science authority in even the latter's most widely established and accepted realms. This produces, in various faiths and cultures, massacres of non-believers, oppression of women, textbooks that make no mention of evolution, and people who will die (or let their children die) rather than accept modern medical advances.

Most religions in the West today practice a far more liberal, tolerant view, one that politely and gracefully defers to science on practically every issue except God. But this retraction of their authority simply makes their central inadequacy all the more obvious. What is God? What relevance does God have to human existence? When religion tries to answer this question, it runs into a fundamental paradox. If God is all-wise, all-powerful, and all-compassionate, why is there ignorance, injustice and suffering in the world?

Traditional, mainstream religion can't find its way past this paradox because it has never fully understood that God is not just something to be praised, revered, prayed to or sung to; God is to be realized. The only meaningful way to understand the existence of imperfection is as a motivating force not simply to better ourselves, but to transcend ourselves, to become one with something much greater than ourselves. This process of realization requires not simply the most brutally dedicated kind of life that a human being can endure--a life that is quite literally impossible by any ordinary human standards--but a method. And that method is scientific, in the broadest, most tolerant sense of the word.

Science without spirit--sometimes known as scientism or reductionism--is also a bird with one wing. It, too, comes in hardline and reform versions. In its fundamentalist version, what transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber (1995) calls "gross" reductionism (biologist Richard Dawkins (1986) calls it "precipice" reductionism; physicist Steven Weinberg (1992), "uncompromising" reductionism; and philosopher Daniel Dennett (1995), "greedy" reductionism), it tries to explain everything in terms of physical matter. Among its numerous other problems, gross reductionism advises us that all the computers in the world, running for all the time in the universe, would not be sufficient to explain completely the actions of a single large molecule, let alone ourselves.

Not many scientists today are gross reductionists, though some of our most gifted intellects sometimes seem to flirt with the notion, such as molecular biologist Francis Crick; evolutionist Edward Wilson; and the philosophers Patricia and Paul Churchland. But most scientists do practice a "subtle" form of reductionism, in Wilber's words (Dawkins: "hierarchical" reductionism; Weinberg: "compromising" reductionism; Dennett: "good" reductionism). Like liberal religion, subtle reductionism is a tolerant creed--tolerant, that is, of different kinds of science. It acknowledges that there are different levels of existence besides the physical, and that methods appropriate to investigation of one level are not necessarily relevant to the problems of another level.

Whether gross or subtle, reductionist science has no use for spirit, and is most often criticized for a worldview that lacks any meaning or purpose. But its problems go much deeper than this. Even on its own terms, in its own self-created universe, science sooner or later runs into its central paradox: the mind-body problem, or what we might now more accurately call the consciousness vs. shared world problem. Consciousness, according to reductionists of every stripe, is in some manner derived from processes in the brain. Yet the experience of consciousness is so totally unlike these processes that no scientific theory can even pretend to describe the relationship. Philosopher David Chalmers, who calls this the "hard" problem, tries to solve it by making consciousness a starting condition of existence (Chalmers 1996). Several other philosophers have basically surrendered, arguing that the relationship of consciousness to the brain is beyond the ability of the human mind to understand (Nagel 1986; McGinn 1999).

There are many other paradoxes in science, especially in mathematics, that point to the same fundamental schism. The work of Kurt Godel and Alan Turing, and more recently of Gregory Chaitin, has demonstrated that there are truths that can't be proven--in other words, we know some things without recourse to either science or logic (Rucker 1995; Peterson 1998; Chaitin 1999). There is even paradox at the heart of the scientific method itself. One of its core features is a process called induction: when we observe that one event is consistently associated with another, we say that the two events are causally related. But David Hume pointed out several centuries ago that the inference of causality can't itself be proved--certainly not by science itself, nor by any kind of logic known to human beings (Russell 1945).

How can we know something is true if we can't prove it? How can we know one event causes another if we can't prove it? How can we be conscious if we can't explain it? Scientists and philosophers have widely divergent views on what these paradoxes really mean (Hofstadter 1979; Penrose 1989; Rucker 1995; Dennett 1995; Churchland 1996a; Searle 1997). But the relentlessly rational Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna argued nearly two eons ago, fighting logic with logic, that the existence of paradoxes is a sure sign that something is missing (Morgan 1956). It's nature's way of telling science, so to speak, that something is outside its system, something it not only doesn't see, but can't see, something incontainable within its most bedrock assumptions. This something, Nagarjuna understood, is spirit.

The Hierarchical Worldview

Science and spirit, in short, need each other. Spirit, we might say, understands "why"; science understands "how". Spirit knows where we should be going, but in the absence of science is clueless about how to get there--about what "getting there" even means. Science is very good at getting places, but has never understood that there is any particular place to reach. Does anyone have a map?

The central theme of this book is that we do have a map, that is, a worldview that can accomodate both science and spirit. I didn't create this worldview, nor am I the first to describe it (see, for example, Ouspensky 1961; Koestler 1967, 1991; Land 1973; Young 1976; Jantsch 1980; Csanyi 1980; Allen and Starr 1982; Lima-de-Faria 1988; Wilber 1989, 1995; Pettersson 1996). It's based on a very old idea, one that dominated Western thought from the time of Aristotle right down until the 19th century. As it's being developed today, though, it has some very new features, which we will be exploring throughout this book.

The essence of this worldview is contained in the word hierarchy: that all of existence is organized into levels, each of which is higher (and I will provide a more precise definition of that potentially loaded term later) than that below it. These levels include all of existence with which science is familiar, including physical matter, living cells and organisms, societies, mind and behavior. They also include still higher forms of existence, the spiritual realms. According to the hierarchical worldview, we stand at the intersection of these two realms, science and spirit. When we look down, we practice science; when we look up, we seek spirit.

The bare notion of hierarchy, if not its extent, ought to be satisfactory to both sides. As we will see shortly, it has been a central feature of religion in the West until very recently; it's also a concept very familiar to most major Eastern religions. But it's acceptable to most scientists as well. Traditional science reflects just such an organization, with physicists studying atoms, chemists molecules, biologists cells and organisms, psychologists the mind, ecologists groups of organisms, sociologists groups of people. As I just pointed out, most, though not all, scientists now accept that each of these levels is in some sense not understandable in terms of the others. Furthermore, many scientists have found hierarchy to be a very useful way of organizing ideas, concepts and discoveries within any one of these fields (Maslow 1968; Loevinger 1977; Allen and Starr 1982; Odum 1983; Becker and Deamer 1991; Raff 1996; Sober and Wilson 1998; Fukuyama 1998).

So the idea of hierarchy begins, so to speak, with an honest confession: that we have levels of existence and levels of knowledge about these levels. That, in a sense, there can be no single unifying principle, because there is a fundamental diversity in the world. Where hierarchy derives its unity from is in the recognition that there are very similar principles operating at each level of existence. Each level can be reduced--in a conceptual sense--not to some other level, but to the interplay of these principles. Physicist and author Fritjof Capra, who has written as articulately and comprehensively about recent new ideas in science as anyone, puts it this way: "different but mutually consistent concepts may be used to describe different aspects or levels of reality, without the need to reduce phenomena of any level to those of another."4

Nevertheless, many people don't like the concept of hierarchy. It evokes images of authoritarian societies in which most members are confined to their roles by a rigid class system. To suggest that such a system is natural, let alone fundamental and inevitable, seems to provide a rationale for such societies. Even Capra, whose writings are loaded with terms like "levels" and "higher order", issues this disclaimer:

"We tend to arrange these systems, all nesting within larger systems, in a hierarchical scheme...But this is a human projection. In nature there is no "above" or 'below", and there are no hierarchies."5

I think Capra is being a little inconsistent here. His main point--and I agree with him to this extent--is that human knowledge is not objective, but always limited and imperfect. So our perception of hierarchies reflects a limited, imperfect view of the world; indeed, as we will see later, the very concept of hierarchy itself helps us to understand just how, and to what extent, our perception is limited. But by the same reasoning, our perception of interacting networks or processes--which Capra sees everywhere in nature and makes the central principle of his worldview--is also imperfect and incomplete. So regardless of how correct Capra's assertion might turn out to be, I don't find it very helpful.

The essential point is that hierarchies are as realistic, as truthful, a view of existence, as it presents itself to us now, as we have. Everywhere we look, we see evidence of them. For example, would anyone deny that matter is essential to life, and life to mind6, while the reverse is not true?7 These kinds of relationships are hierarchical. Some organisms are more intelligent than others, and we have little trouble ranking their intelligence, in an approximate way. This is a hierarchical relationship. Nor are hierarchies just a "human projection", found nowhere else in "nature". The fact is that almost all forms of life are in some sense aware of hierarchies, even if they can't say the word or formulate the concept. I'm not just speaking of the numerous organisms--from insects to apes--whose behavior is governed by hierarchical relationships with other members of their own species. Most organisms know the difference between lifeless matter and another kind of organism, and can act on this difference. This kind of discrimination is hierarchical.

Nor can we assume that hierarchy is something that applies only to the material and animal world, and that we humans, by the very stint of our greater intelligence and awareness, can create a world without such distinctions. While much of society today is more politically democratic than ever before in history, providing people with equality before the law, other hierarchical distinctions, in factors such as wealth, intelligence, education, social status, physical abilities and numerous other talents, are, if anything, much more dramatic now than they ever were in the past (Castells 1998; Moen et al. 1999). What about the future? Are we perhaps evolving towards a state of existence where hierarchies will be abolished? I will argue in this book, and I think Capra would agree, that we might be evolving, we have the possibility of evolving, to a "higher" state of existence--that nasty signifier of hierarchy again. Practically everyone who has had experience with such a state uses that word, and it seems fairly clear that, so far, not all of humanity has had equal access to this state (Ouspensky 1961; Underhill 1961; O'Brien 1964a; Peers 1989; Wilber 1998).

So hierarchies, I believe, are an inevitable feature of existence; we have to live in them. They emerge at all levels of existence, because they have real or potential advantages over other forms of organization, for the group as well as, frequently, for each of its members. And while hierarchies often seem unfair to us (as we conveniently ignore the fact that "we" don't even exist except as a hierarchy of still lower, less fairly-situated forms of life), much of the visceral reaction to this term, I think, results from not appreciating that there are different kinds of hierarchies, which can exhibit very different kinds of relationships.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this last point is to contrast the concept of hierarchy as it's emerging today with the original version. As I said earlier, the hierarchical worldview is a very old one. Tracing the history of the original version very briefly will help us see both the similarities and the differences in the two views, and how the older view reflected a certain social organization of its time that is quite different from what exists in much of the world today. This comparison, I hope, will make it clear that the notion of hierarchy is not a monolithic one.

The Great Chain of Being

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is usually credited with having developed the first comprehensive worldview based on hierarchy, at least in the West. In his grand scheme--which he called the Scale of Nature, but which later became known as the Great Chain of Being-- there were more than a dozen levels of existence, beginning with inanimate matter and rising through plants, five classes or groups of invertebrates, five classes of vertebrates, human beings, and above them all, God (Lloyd 1968). God was not only the Creator of the Great Chain, but also the standard against which everything else was ranked; that is, the higher a lifeform was in the hierarchy, the closer to God it was, and the greater its degree of perfection. A keen observer of nature, Aristotle based one of his rankings on degree of development at birth, not a bad beginning for a comparative biology. Another classification was according to "powers of soul", which we could say anticipated a great body of work today ranking higher animals, and particular human beings and their civilizations, according to stages of consciousness (Campbell 1959; Loevinger 1977; Habermas 1979; Wilber, 1980, 1981; Gebser 1986; Piaget 1992).

Though hierarchies by definition consist of levels, in The Great Chain of Being the distinctions between levels were thought to be so slight that the levels became continuous, with one shading into the next. This aspect of the Great Chain came to Aristotle from Plato's concept of plenitude. The infinite nature of God seemed to imply that anything that could be created would be created, that anything possible had to be actualized. Thus there was a fullness to existence, in which there was not only a place for every form of life, but a form of life for every place8.

The continuity of the Great Chain implied two important features, each of which we will see shortly, is reflected in some manner in our modern version of hierarchy. First, it made every form of life, even the lowest and furthest removed from God, in some sense as essential to the entire hierarchy as everything else. If everything that exists has to exist, then every level, every link in the Great Chain, is vital. Remove or break any link and the entire chain would be destroyed. This notion anticipates modern ideas about connectivity in existence, in which any form of existence is intricately related through processes to many other forms of existence.

A second implication of continuity is that there had to be higher forms of existence than human beings. Whatever the Greek conception of God was, a gap clearly existed between the Creator and any mortal. To fill this gap, the scholastics who followed Aristotle therefore postulated a series of angels and divinities, higher than humans yet less than God. In the modern version of the hierarchy, as we will see, a similar position is filled by higher levels of consciousness.

For nearly 2000 years, the Great Chain would persist as one of the core ideas in Western civilization. It had a profound influence on not only philosophy and religion, but formed, in the words of historian Arthur Lovejoy, the very "plan and structure of the world which...most educated men were to accept without question."9 Its demise in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Lovejoy, was the result of a fundamental inconsistency between two kinds of God it seemed to imply: a transcendent God, beyond all of existence, perfect and unchanging; and an immanent God, that created the Great Chain by pouring itself out, so to speak, into worldly existence. The immanent God was the creator of imperfecton, of evil as well as good, which philosophers could only interpret as the result of either choice or constraint. If by choice, there was the question of why God would choose to create imperfection and evil; if by constraint, then God was not omnipotent. As I pointed out earlier, this fundamental paradox continues to dog religion today, with or without the Great Chain.

This philosophical dilemma, then, greatly weakened the Great Chain. Its coup d'etat, though, was probably delivered by Darwin. The Great Chain was a static structure. Every type of material object, and every species of life, was thought to have been created by God at the same time; and having been created it remained as it was, forever unchanging. The theory of evolution, of course, completely overturned this idea. Though the concept of evolution, as we will see later, is not at all incompatible with the general concept of hierarchy, the latter idea, as embodied in the Great Chain, was so completely intertwined with a static order that the two ideas fell together.

Science and philosophy, like any human endeavors, are shaped to some extent by a larger social, political, cultural and economic context, and other elements within this context also helped doom the Great Chain of Being. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were an age of individualism, marked by a profound shift of focus from God to man. In the political sphere, democracies were being born; economics had discovered free markets and Adam Smith's "invisible hand". In religion itself, the Protestant Reformation had earlier questioned the exclusive authority of priests to interpret the scriptures.

Together, these trends created an environment emphasizing freedom of thought and action, individual responsibility, and an attitude, particularly in America, that there were no limits to what human beings could accomplish. Such freedoms and aspirations are not easy to reconcile with a worldview that says human beings have a fixed place in the cosmos, that they can rise no higher than the station in which they presently find themselves. "This hierarchy," protested Voltaire,

"pleases those good folks who fancy they see it in the Pope and his cardinals, followed by archbishops and bishops; after whom come the curates, the vicars, the simple priests, the deacons, the subdeacons; then the monks appear, and the line is ended by the Capuchins."10

As I noted earlier, Voltaire's view is still very much alive today, and I feel it's a healthy one to the extent that it warns us that models of the natural order will always be used by some to justify a particular social order. But there is danger, too, in the converse approach, of using our ideals of what society should be like to influence the way we understand nature. Many of the fallacies in what are loosely called New Age ideas and theories, it seems to me, are traceable to this kind of approach (as is, perhaps, the antipathy towards hierarchy of some scientists, such as Gould). And while neither of these problems is unique to a hierarchical view, this view is particularly susceptible to this kind of abuse, simply because it very honestly and openly contends that the social order is part of the natural order.

Resurrection of the Hierarchical View

For more than a century, the Great Chain has been largely absent as a unifying idea in Western thought. But the hierarchical view of life at its core has re-emerged in the past several decades, for several major reasons. First, beginning in the 1960s, large numbers of people began to have experience with higher states of consciousness. An entire generation that had been brought up as agnostics, perhaps the first generation to come of age under the full force of the idea that God was dead, was exposed to evidence that there is indeed a higher state of being. To many individuals came the realization for the first time that God was not just an invention of a corrupt church, nor an abstract concept of philosophers, but had a real existence. The idea that human beings are not the highest form of life was no longer speculative; it was supported by direct, experiential evidence.

A second major factor in the revival of a hierarchical view has been reaction to the increasing fragmentation of science. As investigators in every area of science have probed deeper and deeper into existence, it has been increasingly difficult for them to communicate with one another. Few physicists understand much biology; few biochemists are conversant in psychology. In an effort to bridge these gaps, there has been a strong trend in academia over the past two decades to form new, interdisciplinary fields that combine the concepts, findings and approaches of two or more of the traditional divisions. As might be expected, these efforts began with subjects not so far apart, such as chemistry and biology, or biology and psychology. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, interdisciplinary programs become quite common in most major univeristies, and some of these programs--such as molecular biology, cell biology, and neurobiology--have developed the status of full-standing disciplines in their own right.

As more and more such links have been formed, the connections have become at once progressively wider, deeper and stronger. It's not so uncommon now, for example, to see conferences bringing together people in fields ranging from biology to economics, from physics to religion. Nor is it uncommon to see books, like this one, in which many or all of these subjects are discussed. Writer John Brockman argues, in fact, that a 'third culture" has emerged, one trying to bridge, the long-standing gap between the hard sciences, on the one hand, and the social sciences and humanities, on the other (Brockman 1995). While the gaps between the two are still very great, an important benefit of this interchange has been the development of theories emphasizing the interconnectedness of existence, the centrality of relationships between different forms of life (Capra 1996). As we will see, this work provides a key difference between the new understanding of hierarchy and the original Great Chain.

In addition to these two forces shaping the hierarchical view, there is a third, coming from traditional science itself. Any new worldview has to be consistent with the evidence that supported the worldview it replaces. Much of the evidence that supports the new hierarchical view, I will argue in this book, comes from well-established, if fairly recent, scientific discoveries. Hierarchical organization is now recognized to be a key principle in our understanding of cells (Becker and Deamer 1991), organisms (Raff 1996), and societies of organisms (Allen and Starr 1982; Fukuyama 1998), as well as in the developmental and evolutionary processes that generate these forms of existence (Maslow 1968; Loevinger, 1977; Habermas 1979; Wilber 1980, 1981; Allen and Starr 1982; Odum 1983; Mayr 1988; Raff 1996; Sober and Wilson 1998). The word "level of existence" is now taken for granted by all scientists, so much so that's it's not easy to remember that only a few decades ago, it was almost never used.

Holarchy: the New View of Hierarchy

The new view of hierarchy, then, is very much a product of the latest developments in twentieth century thought. Yet it does have roots in the Great Chain, not so much in the sense that hierarchial theorists have been directly influenced by this older worldview as that some of the concepts of Plato, Aristotle and subsequent philosophers were quite insightful. Before we begin, in the next chapter, to examine the new view in detail, I feel it would be useful to to provide a very general overview of it as it's emerging today, comparing it and contrasting it with the Great Chain of Being (Table 1) . This brief description will make it clear, I think, that many of our most important scientific and philosophical ideas today are both very old in one sense and very new in another. At the same time, this overview will allow me to say a little about how the particular model of hierarchy to be described in this book differs from those proposed by other authors (Ouspenksy 1961; Land 1973; Jantsch 1980; Wilber 1995; Pettersson 1996).

1. Inclusivity. Like the Great Chain, the new hierarchy is a sweepingly comprehensive map or model of the universe, purporting to bring every known form of existence, living and non-living, into its embrace. Today, however, that means not only all living organisms, but cells, molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, all of which were of course unknown to Aristotle--and in the other direction, social organizations of all kinds, which were far less complex and probably completely unappreciated as forms of existence in the Greek Golden Age.

Science, of course, claims to be inclusive as well, in the sense that every form of existence is open to investigation. As I pointed out at the beginning of this chapter, however, science remains blind to higher forms of existence, which were an essential feature of the Great Chain. The new hierarchical model of existence, as I will be describing it here, also includes these higher levels. These are no longer mere postulates, however, such as the nine grades of divinity of medieval scholars (Lovejoy 1960), but based to some extent on the shared observations of individuals--past and present--experiencing these states.

I feel this is one of the most important contributions of the new hierarchical view, one that has been ignored or given little attention not only by conventional science, but also by quite a few (though not all) hierarchical theorists, many of whom are scientists and thus emphasize phenomena observable by traditional scientific procedures. The inclusion of higher states of existence into our worldview does not simply add new areas of investigation. As I suggested earlier, it also allows us to see and understand traditional, lower levels of existence in new ways. For example, I will argue later that many features of modern societies now emerging, from corporate mergers to the extinction of species, from the growth of the internet to energy efficiency, can be best understood in the context of the evolution of a higher, planetary form of life. Higher states of existence are also surely very relevant to our understanding of consciousness.

The recognition of higher states of existence also reframes age-old questions about ultimate origins, about where life came from. The Great Chain was thought to have been created by God, who was both necessary and sufficient in this regard. The conventional scientific view, in contrast, explains our origins through evolution. The hierarchical view that I will develop in this book has features of both these views. Evolution--including not only Darwinism, but other types of evolutionary processes--is recognized to have played a major role, but it does not seem to provide a complete answer. The very existence of higher states of consciousness which can be validated in their major features provides, I will argue, evidence of intelligent life prior to evolution on earth which must be taken into account in any theory of our origins.

2. Interdependence. Another essential feature of the modern hierarchical view that is both old and new is that different forms of existence are interdependent. In the Great Chain, as I discussed earlier, interconnectedness was implicit in the Platonian concept of plenitude. If everything that exists has to exist, it seems to follow that every link in the chain is vital; no link can be omitted. In the modern hierarchical view, in contrast, interconnectedness is explicit. A whole branch of science, known as systems theory, has come of age which studies the ways in which phenomena are connected. Indeed, some systems theorists, such as Fritjof Capra, believe that processes are a better way in which to view the world than the traditional one of units or entities such as atoms, cells and organisms.

These two concepts, however--entitites or forms of existence, on the one hand, and processes, on the other--can perhaps be synthesized or brought together in the single concept of holons. As originally defined by Arthur Koestler (1967, 1991), a holon is both a whole and a part. That is, it is a complete entity or system in itself, yet part of something larger than itself. We are holons, for example, because we are made up of other entities, such as cells, and in turn are part of larger forms organization, such as various social groups. The cells of our body, likewise, are composed of various kinds of molecules, while themselves composing the organism.

Because holons are both wholes and parts, they imply a special kind of hierarchical organization, in which lower-order forms of life are included within higher-order forms. Some people in fact suggest that the term "hierarchy" be replaced with "holarchy", in which each level contains the lower levels while being contained within higher levels. This kind of hierarchy is also often referred to as a nested hierarchy, as each level, like a Chinese box, is nested within the level above it. Referring to the modern hierarchical view as a holarchy helps us distinguish it from the Great Chain of Being, which was a non-nested hierarchy, as are many kinds of human social organization. Classic examples of the latter are Voltaire's ecclesiastical hierarchy; any military chain of command; and most forms of bureaucratic organization. In this type of hierarchy, the higher does not include the lower, but is separate from it.

For this reason I will use the term holarchy throughout most of this book, and I hope that will alleviate some of the opposition that many people have to the idea of hierarchies. To be sure, as I just pointed out, there are non-nested hierarchies within the holarchy, and we human beings are parts of both these traditional hierarchies as well as holarchical organizations. However, as I will show later, non-nested hierarchies come into existence only through a particular kind of interaction with nested ones. This interaction, among other things, helps us understand our own position in the holarchy, and has some important implications for our understanding of mentality.

3. Limits to knowledge and action. In the Great Chain, all forms of life, including human beings, were thought to represent imperfect manifestations or outpourings of God, the Creator. Since men and women were imperfect, it followed that some forms of knowledge, some aspects of existence, were basically beyond their comprehension. This attitude, of course, has long been part of official church doctrine--God is beyond human understanding--and persists among most religious people today, long after the demise of the Great Chain.

Science brought to the world a very different view of knowledge. While science begins with the presumption of ignorance--everything must be tested by empirical observation and experiment--it sees no ultimate limits to its understanding. The scientific method assumes that everything that exists is accessible, at least in principle, to human investigation. Thus while scientists freely concede that they have a very poor understanding of consciousness, for example, or how the universe began, most (though not all) scientists believe that we ultimately will, or could, understand such questions. At the very least, all scientists are very confident that we will know a great deal more about such questions in the future.

The holarchical view of knowledge might be regarded as something of a synthesis of these two views, that of the Great Chain and that of science. Like the Great Chain, it recognizes that human knowledge is incomplete, limited, and that its limits follow directly from our position in the holarchy. We are above some forms of life, of which we have or can have a fairly good understanding, and below others, about which we know little or nothing. In this sense, it's somewhat like traditional religion. On the other hand, as I alluded to earlier, higher forms of life are potentially accessible to human beings, who can in this way increase and deepen their understanding of existence. So while human knowledge is limited in the new holarchical view, the limits are not fixed. Perhaps a better way of making this point would be to say that while knowledge is limited in human beings, or any other form of life with a particular kind of identity, that identity itself is open to change, and with it, so are the limits of its knowledge.

Closely related to the limits of knowledge are limits to action. Every time I go into a bookstore--which I do frequently these days--I see literally dozens of new books in which the author has identified an urgent problem confronting humanity in general, or some of us in particular. After carefully describing all the diagnostic symptoms of the problem, and the consequences of allowing it to fester, the author then soothes our worries by explaining "what we can do" to fix it. The holarchical view of existence, taken seriously, suggests that we have very much less control over our lives than we usually assume we do. Changes occur in our individual lives and in our societies, for sure. The question is, how do these changes come about; from where do they originate? The holarchical view strongly implies that everything that happens on our level of existence--whether we "choose" to do it or believe it has been forced upon us--is associated with other events at both higher and lower levels of existence. The more we understand the connections among these other levels, I will argue, the more we come to appreciate how constrained our choices really are.

4. Analogy. A central feature of the new hierarchical or holarchical view, as I alluded to earlier, is analogy: while higher levels of existence have new properties not found in the lower, these properties nevertheless share certain fundamental principles. In the Great Chain, the origins of analogy, again, can be traced to Plato's concept of plenitude. The perfection of God was manifested in an outpouring of creation; it was thought that God, as a perfect being, would not be satisfied or content with a lonely existence, but strove to manifest that perfection as much as possible in as many other things as possible. God, according to Plato, "desired that all things should be as like himself as possible."11 So every form of existence was, in a sense, an imperfect reflection of God. Later mystics would refer to this relationship as that between macrocosm and microcosm, the large universe and the small universe (Parfitt 1991).

The new holarchical view, however, takes this idea much further, drawing on a wealth of recent findings in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, ecology and the social sciences to show in some detail just how one form of existence is analogous to another form on another level. A major aim of this book is to explore these analogies, which I feel have not been sufficiently appreciated. I will show not only that analogies between different levels of existence are much more extensive than most scientists, including most hierarchical theorists, realize, but also point out a number of reasons why they are often obscured--why these analogies often appear to be less significant than they really are.

Why is understanding these analogies so important? One of the commonest criticisms I hear of the hierarchical view is not that it's "wrong"--as I said earlier, virtually everyone acknowledges hierarchy--but that it has little relevance to important scientific issues. Can it help us cure cancer? Does it provide new insights into consciousness? What does it say about evolution? Our ability to answer these and other questions, I contend, comes from our ability to demonstrate analogies between different levels of existence. They not only provide a unifying view of life, a set of principles to help us make sense of what we know now as well as to guide further scientific investigation, but also allow us to probe areas of life currently out of the reach of such investigation.

One such area is the past. Our current understanding of how life evolved is severely limited by the scarcity of evidence; while fossil remains have helped us reconstruct part of our natural history, for vast ages of the past we have nothing to go on but intelligent speculation. The holarchical view, as we will see, provides us with what amounts to living fossils. I will argue that we can begin to understand, as we learn how certain levels of the holarchy evolve today, how other, analogous levels might have evolved in the past.

Conversely, the holarchical view may also be able to make a significant contribution to our understanding of the future. This we can approach in the converse fashion--by our knowledge of the past. What we know about how life has evolved so far--and in certain areas we know a great deal--can, I believe, allow us to predict, within certain very general limits, how it will evolve in the future. Thus as I suggested earlier, certain major features of human civilization appearing today seem to have parallels in phenomena in lower forms of life.

Finally, I regard the search for holarchical analogies important not only when it's successful, but also when it isn't. Though I believe these analogies are much more prevalent than most people realize, there are numerous instances where different levels of the holarchy do not seem to be analogous. This raises the question of why: is it because a) our data, our observations are incomplete; b) our understanding of the holarchy is imperfect; or c) simply because principles derived from one level of existence have only limited application to other levels?12

Trying to answer this question can open up exciting new areas of investigation. To mention very briefly one example, the reproduction of cells, which constitute one level of existence, is not completely analogous to the reproduction of organisms, another level. Most cells reproduce by dividing themselves; most organisms reproduce by creating special cells, called gametes, which fuse in pairs, then reproduce the organism through numerous rounds of cell division and differentiation. This difference reflects still a deeper one: the cells of which organisms are composed are genetically identical, that is, contain the same set of information. The atoms of which cells are composed are not identical; they don't contain the same set of information.

Regardless of the explanation for this difference, it has, I will argue later, profound implications for our understanding of our future evolution. Let's suppose, as some holarchical theorists (including me) are inclined to do, that there is an emerging new level of existence, represented by the earth and all its forms of matter, life, and mind. If this new level of existence is patterned after the cell, it will have a heterogeneous composition of organisms, including not only human beings but many other forms of life. To reproduce such a level of existence--by colonizing another planet, for example--would therefore require not only humans, but a Noah's ark full of other species. If this new level is patterned after the organism, on the other hand, it will eventually consist largely of only one species, presumably humans; this new level could then reproduce itself simply through them. A third possibility, of course, is that its pattern of reproduction will be something new and very different from that of either the cell or the organism.

5. Evolution. The use of the word "evolution" brings us to one essential feature of the holarchy which truly seems to have no meaningful antecedent in the Great Chain. As I noted earlier, the Great Chain was a static structure. While the ancients were of course aware that there was constant change in life--we are all born, grow up and die--the general classes of life were thought to have been created at once, and remained unchanged thereafter. The modern version of hierarchy, in contrast, is thoroughly dynamic. Hardly capable of ignoring 150 years of evolutionary theory, it accepts not only that the organization of life as we know it emerged through a long process of evolution, but that this change is continuing to occur now. The holarchical view, infused with the relatively modern notion of evolution, implies that higher levels of existence may be beginning to emerge, and as I just noted, we may able to make some intelligent speculations about some of their aspects.

The holarchical view also may provide us with some important new insights into the process of evolution itself. I will be using these insights to suggest the possibility of a much broader theory of evolution than the current modern theory, based on Darwinism, provides. This theory does not discard Dawinism, but interprets it in multiple ways on multiple levels of existence. Such a theory, which builds on but extends the ideas of others (Dennett 1995; Depew and Weber 1997; Sober and Wilson 1998) may also provide a framework in which it becomes possible to incorporate many currently popular alternative evolutionary theories, based on non-Darwinian processes such as self-organizing phenomena (Prigigone and Stengers 1984; Casti 1992; Kauffman 1993).

This broader theory of evolution creates a powerful new context that can enhance our understanding of many phenomena that currently seem poorly related or unrelated. For starters, we will see that it can unify in one conceptual framework two kinds of evolutionary processes, generally called biological evolution and cultural evolution, that have shaped human history. The theory can explain in holarchical terms exactly how these two processes are related--why they seem so similar in some respects, yet so different in others--as well as uncover still other evolutionary processes that are analogs of either one or the other. Even further, though, this theory can seamlessly integrate the current growth of Artificial Intelligence with Darwinism. I will argue that our preoccupation with creating intelligent machines is a close analog of earlier evolutionary processes, fulfilling precisely the same role on our level of existence as the evolution of genomes did on a lower level. P>

6. Time. The theory of evolution brought with it a new appreciation for the role of time in life. We now understand that living things are constantly changing, and not simply over millions of years, but from moment to moment. The cells and molecules in our bodies are constantly dying or being degraded, to be replaced by others. In a very important sense, we are not the same individual as we were yesterday, or will be tomorrow.

A novel feature of the holarchical model I will develop in this book is that it's defined by both space and time. Specifically, I will argue that every level of existence is associated with a set of several temporal as well as spatial dimensions. Within any one level, different holons are distinguished from one another according to how many of these dimensions they exist in. This understanding, as we shall see, makes it possible not only to define a level of existence with precision, but provides enormous new insight into how new properties emerge at each new level as well as within a level.

One of the most important properties of higher forms of life, of course, is mind or consciousness. An important implication of the idea that every holon exists in a certain number of dimensions is that it also experiences itself in this number of dimensions. I will show that consciousness at every level, to the extent that it exists, can be understood in terms of dimensions of experience. Specifically, I will argue that we humans experience not a single dimension of time, as science conventionally believes, but two dimensions of time. Though we are not directly aware of the presence of this second dimension, we are very much aware of its consequences--it gives the ever-changing world around us permanence.

Defining degree of consciousness in terms of dimensions will help us understand why we can't explain consciousness in terms of our physical and biological processes--why science is helpless to provide a so-called transparent theory of consciousness. We will also see that at higher levels of consciousness, new dimensions of experience become accessible, which provide a new way of understanding the insights realized at these higher states.

7. Information. For more than a century, evolution has been considered a fundamental concept which virtually every major theory in biology, psychology and the social sciences has in some manner had to take into account. Like all ideas, however, it eventually must give way to newer ones, itself either dying or being modified in the process. Several theorists have suggested that a key new idea poised to change dramatically the way we understand our origins is information (Chalmers 1996; Chaitin 1999; Davies 1999; Seager 1999; Loewenstein 1999). In a sense, of course, the meaning of information is obvious to us. We have all been told a zillion times that we live in an age of information. We are inundated with astronomical, incomprehensible amounts of it in speech, in printed material, and now in computers and the internet. Several writers have argued that the way in which we now use information defines a distinct new age (Hobart and Schiffman 1998; Robertson 1998).

Strangely, though, we don't really know what information is. Is it the same thing as energy? Perhaps not, because in theory a computer could be constructed in which information is manipulated without any use of energy (Milburn 1998). Yet it's closely associated with energy, and like existence itself, it seems to have different manifestations on different levels--bits, DNA sequences, synaptic connections in the brain, cultural symbols, and so on. Indeed, I will argue that information can provide a standard by which to compare different holarchical forms of life, to assess whether, and by what degree, one form of life is higher than another. We will also see that the concept of information can even help us understand why there is holarchy--why existence organizes itself into different levels.

With this brief overview of the holarchy, we are ready to examine it in detail. This book is divided into two parts. In the first part, we will examine the holarchy as it is understood today, level by level. Thus in the following chapter, we will consider the physical level of existence, beginning with atoms and ending with cells. In subsequent chapters, we will look at the biological level, from cells to organisms; the mental level, where mind and behavior come into existence; and finally consider the evidence for a still higher level of existence, which I call the transpersonal or planetary. This part of the book will then conclude with a summary of the main principles of the holarchy that have emerged from our tour.

In part two, we will examine how change occurs in the holarchy. We will consider both the current, scientifically accepted "synthetic" theory of evolution, based on Darwinism, as well as several alternative theories of evolution that have recently been proposed. We will also try to understand the role, if any, of higher states of existence in the creation of lower forms of life.

Though I will necessarily have to cover a wide range of research findings and concepts in many different areas of both the natural and the social sciences, I will not attempt to treat any of these areas comprehensively nor even necessarily evenly. My principle aim throughout this book will be to elucidate general principles of holarchical organization, principles that apply to every level of existence. This tour will therefore be a selective one; we will examine ideas not because they're "interesting" or "provocative", but only to the extent that they can shed light on the larger view of holarchy. After principles are formulated on one level, we will look for them on the next level, along with any new principles that seem to emerge.

Go to Chapter 2

Go to Footnotes

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