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Holism in science, or Holistic science, is a controversial approach to research that emphasizes the study of complex systems under the guise of science. Not a scientific discipline itself, it defines a philosophical lens by which emergence is taken into account when applying the scientific method, often within a wider interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary mode of inquiry. This practice is in contrast to a purely analytic tradition (sometimes called reductionism) which proports to understand systems by dividing them into their smallest possible or discernible elements and understanding their elemental properties alone. The holism/reductionism dichotomy is often evident in conflicting interpretations of experimental findings and in setting priorities for future research.

Features considered central to the holistic approach

The term holistic science has been used as a category encompassing a number of scientific research fields (see some examples below). The term may not have a precise definition. Fields of scientific research considered potentially holistic do however have certain things in common.

First, they are multidisciplinary. Second, they are concerned with the behavior of complex systems. Third, they recognize feedback within systems as a crucial element for understanding their behavior.

The Santa Fe Institute, a center of holistic scientific research in the United States, expresses it like this:

The two dominant characteristics of the SFI research style are commitment to a multidisciplinary approach and an emphasis on the study of problems that involve complex interactions among their constituent parts. "Santa Fe Institute's Research Topics." URL accessed on January 22, 2006.

An alternative to reductionism

Some advocates of holism refer to orthodox science as reductionist science or the reductionist paradigm or greedy reductionism. This is a compact way to allude to a tendency of classical science towards the modular: that is, to break systems down into manageable parts for study.

The holistic premise is that there is a possible qualitative difference between an entire system and its parts: that modularisation may fail. As applied to science, holists may generally assert that this difference can warrant the kind of rigorous scrutiny typical of scientific inquiry. The distinction of approach then lies not so much in the subjects chosen for study, but in the methods and assumptions used to study them. For example, in the field of quantum physics, David Bohm pointed out that there is no scientific evidence to support the dominant view that the universe consists of a huge, finite number of minute particles, and offered in its stead a view of undivided wholeness.

Though considered by some as alternative, holistic methods are not generally at odds with the classical scientific method. Where holistic scientists come from a standard science background, holistic work in science tends to be, to varying degrees, a marriage of the two approaches. For example gestalt psychology grew out of early experimental psychology. When the terms are used constructively in the science context, holism and reductionism refer to how empirical evidence is interpreted, and not only to the methods used to produce such evidence.

Examples of holism in various scientific fields

Many scientific disciplines are affected by the holistic paradigm. Some of these are widely accepted parts of mainstream science, while others are variously considered to be protoscientific or even pseudoscientific.

Quantum physics

Physicist David Bohm put forward an interpretation of quantum theory that reconciles it with an idea of the universe as an undivided whole, any division of which (e.g. into observer and observed) can only be arbitrary. Despite its elegant simplicity and distinct advantages, this holistic interpretation was given at best an ambivalent reception by mainstream scientists. Recently, however (from the 1990s to the present) Bohm's reputation in the field of quantum physics has grown, though many of his holistic ideas remain in dispute.

Systems biology and systems ecology

Fledgling transdisciplines which apply holistic approaches to the study of biology and ecology to gain insights into the functioning of entire biological and ecological systems (i.e. plants, animals, organisms). See Systems biology and Systems ecology articles for more information.

System dynamics modelling

In system dynamics modeling, a field that originated at MIT, a holistic controlling paradigm organizes scientific method, but uses the results of reductionist science to define static relationships between variables in a modeling procedure that permits simulation of the dynamics of the system under study. As mentioned above, feedback is a crucial tool for understanding system dynamics.

Complexity theory

Another area of intense holistic scientific research is complexity theory. Research in this area began in 1984 with the establishment of the Santa Fe Institute by physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and this institute remains a driving force in the field.

Cognitive science

The field of cognitive science, or the study of mind and intelligence has some examples for holistic approaches. These include Unified Theory of Cognition (Allen Newell, e.g. SOAR, ACT-R as models) and many others, many of which rely on the concept of emergence, i.e. the interplay of many entities make up a functioning whole. Another example is psychological nativism, the study of the innate structure of the mind. Non-holistic functionalist approaches within cognitive science include e.g. the modularity of mind paradigm.

Cognitive science need not concern only human cognition. Biologist Marc Bekoff has done holistic, interdisciplinary scientific research in animal cognition and has published a book about it (see below).

Neural networks and artificial intelligence

Another category of holistic research consists of attempts to simulate the human brain or build systems that function along the same lines as the human brain. The field as a whole is called artificial intelligence and the subfield neural networks in particular can be considered holistic, as it is based on the assumption that connections and feedback between simple nodes arranged in a system, or network, can give rise to behavior similar to intelligent or cognition-based behavior.

Integral theory

Not a scientific field in itself, and interdisciplinary by definition, integral theory is the pursuit of knowledge through a combination of scientific and spiritual approaches. The fundamental proposition of integral theory is that both science and spirituality are legitimate domains of human experience and are both essential to an understanding of the world. Mainstream scientists, by contrast, when interpreting scientific findings typically subordinate, ignore, or deny spiritual experience. Integral theorists believe that their new approach will open new avenues of scientific inquiry in the future. Prominent integral theorists include Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, and the contemporary thinker Ken Wilber.

Medicine

In addition to the wealth of complementary and alternative approachs to medicine, many of which are viewed with suspicion or even outright hostility by the mainstream medical community, orthomolecular medicine and orthomolecular psychiatry, pioneered by noted physicist and peace activist Linus Pauling, represent an alternative approach to medicine that makes greater use of laboratory testing to vary the concentration of substances normally present in the body to prevent and treat disease.

Other examples

  • Ecology, or ecological science, i.e. studying the ecology at levels ranging from populations, communities, and ecosystems up to the biosphere as a whole.
  • The study of climate change can be considered holistic science, as the climate (and the Earth itself) constitutes a complex system to which the scientific method cannot be applied using current technology.
  • Princeton University hosts a holistic science project entitled "Global Consciousness Project" that uses a network of physical random number generators to register events of global signficance, testing the hypothesis that there is a collective human consciousness at work in the world.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1810 book Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) not only parted radically with the dominant Newtonian optical theories of his time, but also with the entire Enlightenment methodology of reductive science. Although the theory was not received well by scientists, Goethe � considered one of the most important intellectual figures in modern Europe � thought of his color theory as his greatest accomplishment. Holistic theorists and scientists such as Rupert Sheldrake still refer to the Goethe's color-theory as an inspiring example of holistic science. The introduction to the book lays out Goethe's unique philosophy of science.

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