This Scientific Revolution

Don Watson

[presented at the annual meeting of the ISSS, 6/30/99.]
We are beginning to feel the surge of a scientific revolution that centers on what Willis Harman labeled wholeness science. The concepts that propel this revolution permit us to address a wide range of topics on which reductive, specialized science is mute--notably the origins and behaviors of natural systems of all complexities, whether "living" or "non-living." The revolutionary tide carries, not only new concepts, but a new language--a language of wholeness.

A half-century ago, Benjamin Lee Whorf identified the need for wholeness science by examining the scientific community's languages--"a set of mutually unintelligible dialects." "Science has reached a frontier," he wrote. "The frontier was foreseen in principle very long ago, and given a name that has descended to our day clouded with myth. That name is Babel."

Obviously, Babel is a hostile environment for the evolution of human knowledge. In the natural selection of species, specialization precedes extinction. In the evolution of knowledge, specialization precedes irrelevance. That's why contemporary science can't address the two questions I first asked when I was five years old: "How can I know that I exist?" and "What does it mean to die?"

For nearly six decades, I've searched for the answers to these questions in several scientific disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, neurophysiology, membrane biophysics, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, ecology, information theory, computer science, psychiatry, and parapsychology. I didn't find the answers to my questions in any of these fields. Instead, I discovered that each discipline is a closed box, and that science itself is a box of closed boxes. In other words, if science were an organism, it would be dead.

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, "Discovery is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought." In my case, thinking differently came from seeing differently--from outside the box of boxes.

Notice that I said seeing--not reading. As we'll see in the course of this panel, this distinction is critical to thinking new thoughts. If I'd depended on written language, my thinking would not have escaped a particular kind of box.

The key perspective for me was seeing that the foundation of self-awareness and life itself is organization per se--a topic that is invisible to scientific specialists. Blind to the organization that underpins their logic, mathematics, and language, they can't see how these tools dictate and constrain their thinking.

Bertalanffy recognized the error in disregarding organization itself. He wrote, "Although we have an enormous amount of data on biological organization, ... we do not have a theory of biological organization, i.e., a conceptual model which permits explanation of the empirical facts."

As it turns out, we now do have a theory of organization--and it's not limited to biological systems. I'll discuss this comprehensive theory of wholeness in my main presentation.

To show you the theory's vantage point outside the box of boxes, I'll use two concepts familiar to systems scientists.

First, consider the notion of transcending. It's generally thought that systems transcend the subject matter of specialized science, where transcend means, "to extend beyond or above." The problem is, this perspective dictates a "top-down," inductive approach to systems. And this is a scientific dead end. As Popper pointed out, induction is untenable as a scientific method.

On the other hand, by looking at systems from the bottom up through the hypothetico-deductive method, we've discovered an explanatory theory whose scope is both deep and wide. That's why the theory of wholeness is the transdisciplinary foundation for all of science--including the scientists themselves.

Second, consider the notion of emergence, which posits that the properties and behaviors of systems arise from the interrelationships of the elements of the physical system. Yet, from outside the box, emerging is seen in reverse: Physical systems--including living systems--emerge from the properties and behaviors of non-physical processes. In other words, the theory of wholeness is also a theory of spirit.

And finally, to adequately express organization itself, we must look outside the linguistic box--a topic addressed by my co-panelists, Andy Hilgartner and Dan Moonhawk Alford.