Monthly Archives: April 2008

A Reflection on Holistic Pluralism

Let me start by saying that I am by no means claiming to have a deep understanding of physics. What interests me as a student of religious studies is the relationship between faith traditions (including philosophical systems) and contemporary developments in scientific theory. What follows are my initial thoughts in response to idea referred to as Holistic Pluralism or Organicism.

Throughout history philosophers have speculated as to whether or not the world is reducible to an essential component. This is especially true of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. For Thales, the component was water. For Anaximenes, the component was air. The Western pre-Socratic philosopher that comes closest to the theories of today is Heraclitus – the “weeping philosopher.” Though he thought the essential component of the Universe was fire (which is now widely dismissed), he also taught the idea that everything is in flux, and that the universe is essentially a cooperation of opposites. His philosophy was in some ways the rough sketches of what now could be called ‘Organicism’ or ‘Holistic Pluralism’.

Rather than assuming that the Universe is merely composed of eternal matter that takes on different finite forms over time, Holistic Pluralism describes the Universe as an interconnected / interdependent reality in which all things exist in relationship to one another. This is not to be confused with Monism, which would deduce that all things are in reality an undifferentiated One. Physicists today would argue that Monism just isn’t so. They observe that an atom has its own identity and function in the Universe, but when brought together in relationship to other atoms, molecules come in to being. The atom is both its own whole and a part of something greater. Ken Wilber, author of ‘A Brief History of Everything’, calls this whole/part a ‘holon’. An atom is a holon, as is a molecule, an organism, and a human being. Every holon is both composed of sub-holons, and is itself a sub-holon to a greater holon that transcends the sub-holons by which it is composed (are we tracking?). The point is that everything is in some way deeply related to everything else, and thus interconnected and interdependent. Heraclitus was on to something by stating that everything is in flux.

The reason this theory of reality is sometimes referred to as Organicism is that it appears to be the way that things organically occur in nature. As Alan Watts has pointed out, one cannot accurately describe the behavior of an organism without also describing its environment. For example, it would be difficult to describe the act of a human walking without also describing the ground on which they walk. It would also be impossible to accurately describe the act of eating with describing both the organism and the food it consumes. This demonstrates how our contemporary understanding ecology relates to other (if not all) areas of existence.

As a student of religion, I immediately see a connection between Organicism/Holistic Pluralism and the teachings of the Buddha. Key to the Buddha’s teaching are the ideas of impermanence, interdependence, and the emptiness of inherent existence – each of which work in perfect harmony with my understanding of contemporary physics. Though, what I find fascinating about the Buddha is that his sole aim was not just to figure out the nature of reality for its own sake, but rather to use his knowledge to successfully liberate himself and others from an ongoing cycle of suffering (or, anguish / unsatisfactoriness). He saw that when conditions were right for a seed, it would grow in to a plant. He correlated this organic idea to the way that thoughts, emotions and concepts arise. When the conditions in the mind are suitable for a particular kind of thought or emotion, it will more than likely arise/come in to being. This is why the Buddha put such an emphasis on meditation. By freeing the mind of the conditions that cause negative results, one can begin to experience these negative thoughts and emotions less frequently.

This is just one example of a possible correlation between the teachings of an ancient faith tradition and contemporary science. I would to hear about other correlations if anyone has one to share.


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