Scientific efforts to build an improved world-picture

Quantum mechanics

  • An accurate picture of local particle behavior cannot be reached merely by looking at the local structure of physical events.
  • The behavior of each local event must be considered to be influenced by the whole.
  • In a few cases there have been indications that local events are influenced by or subject to behavior and structure of the universe as a whole, including influences and interactions which propagate faster than the speed of light.

Behavior of physical systems is always “behavior of the whole”, and cannot be well-understood as a conglomerate of local events acting by themselves.


  • Insufficient attention to
    • coordinating functions of organisms
    • appearance of complex structure in the course of evolution and in the daily working of ecological systems
    • evolution of whole ecologies and individual organisms

Complex systems (systems in which many variables interact) have new emergent properties that arise merely because of the organized complexity inherent in the network character of the system, its variables, and their interactions.

  • Remarkable new results from
    • chaos theory
    • theory of complex systems
    • fractals
    • autopoesis in complex systems

Unexpected and complex behaviors arise in richly interconnected systems. Theorems have been proved to show how compelling order arises, almost spontaneously, in these systems.

Thus biology, ecology, the merging fields of complex systems theory, and physics, have all begun to point the way towards a new conception of the world in which the local system is influenced by, and compelled by, the behavior of the whole.

The ecologist Stuart Cowan wrote me a letter, in which he said: “There is, in both science and theology, a long and important tradition of seeing consciousness, spirit, wholeness, and life immanent in the world of space-time, of matter and energy, of the structure of the universe itself. It is a view of embodiment and incarnation, in which even a hydrogen atom has a profound and mysterious interiority (Teilhard de Chardin’s phrase), in which self-organizing structures cohere and communicate, in which interdependence emerges from a fifteen billion year shared story at all levels of scale, in which profound life shimmers forth from the very fabric of the universe…”

Mae-Wan Ho writes of the activity within the organism, “What one must imagine is an incredible hive of activity at every level of magnification — of music being made using more than two thirds of the 73 octaves of the electromagnetic spectrum — locally appearing as though chaotic, and yet perfectly coordinated as a whole. This exquisite music is played in endless variations subject to our changes of mood and physiology, each organism and species with its own repertoire…”

The passage is humane and beautiful. Yet even such passages, when examined closely, remain mechanistic in their detail. They deal with the whole and they describe wondrous behavior in the movement of the whole; the writer is deeply holistic in her attitude. But what she describes are sill mechanisms. No matter how dedicated she is to a new vision, how hard she tries to bring in the new understanding of wholeness in physics, the language of mechanistic science keeps getting in the way. The wholeness itself does not yet appear in the actual calculations as a structure.

Some of the scientists referred to imply, and perhaps believe, that the problem of the bifurcation of nature has been solved; that the thoroughgoing emphasis on the whole which has been achieved will now create a vision of the universe in which we may at last be at home; that the enigma of the felt self, coexisting with the machine-like play of fields and atoms, has been resolved by the new emphasis on the coordination of complex systems and the physicist’s new way of paying attention to the whole.

I believe their optimism is misplaced. The central dilemma, the split between self and matter — Whitehead’s bifurcation — continues today almost as strongly as before. It has been alleviated, perhaps just a little, by the prospect of a new vision and by the prospect of a vision of the whole. But that vision has not yet been achieved, scientifically, in a form which allows the human self to find its place. Because these new theories explicitly concern themselves with the whole, they appear to have overcome the mechanistic difficulties. However, the new vision which has emerged from these events in science has still only improved the earlier mechanistic science by focusing better on the whole.

The personal, the existence of felt “self” in the universe, the presence of consciousness, and the vital relation between self and matter — none of these have entered the picture yet, in a practical or scientifically workable way. In that sense the world picture, even as modified, still deals only with the inert — albeit as a whole.

(Pages 15-17)

Notes mentioning this note

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