Introduction to the Theory of Enformed Systems

A Tutorial on Reductionism vs. Holism

 Don Watson & Berney Williams


We introduce the Theory of Enformed Systems (TES) with three statements that relate it to the paradigms of what Thomas Kuhn termed "normal science."
1. TES is radically related to the prevailing scientific worldviews because it's a theory of organization per se--the root of all organized systems.

2. TES can't be understood in terms of other paradigms because it's not derived from them.

3. TES is not only deep, it is broad. It's a transdisciplinary conceptual model that explains the basic behaviors and properties of all of the systems studied in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, parapsychology, sociology, and their subdisciplines.

If you doubt the validity of this extraordinary claim, please read on to see our reasons for making it.

We note first that science is a human endeavor--a human invention that's operated by humans within human social institutions. This is so obvious, it goes without saying. And here we encounter a serious problem in normal science--not saying it. If we don't address the humanness of science, we can't recognize the emotional and cognitive processes that resist scientific revolutions. Nor can we appreciate how our motives, impeded by our limitations, foster our clinging to misleading mythologies.

For instance, our motive to understand the natural world exposes our limitations in comprehending the whole of Nature. Our realizing these limits, in turn, induces us to create myths that help us believe we can transcend our limitations. Relying on these myths, we believe we can capture and understand Nature.

The case in point is the method of reductionism, the most pervasive myth of normal science. As a basic dogma of the scientific subcultures, reductionism isn't taught, questioned, or analyzed. It's tacitly accepted as a necessary path to understanding. Following this road, we've not only reduced Nature into smaller and smaller parts, we've reduced science itself to narrower and narrower academic specialties. The worldview of these disjointed disciplines is limited to highly constricted horizons that prevent even seeing into other disciplines, much less the whole of Nature.

In short, normal science is a box of closed boxes. The problem is, to solve the puzzles of Nature, we need to see them from outside all of these boxes.

Reductive specialization invites perilous consequences. Just as specialization precedes extinction in the natural selection of species, it foreshadows irrelevance in science. The irrelevance of normal science to living systems can be appreciated by reducing reductionism itself to absurdity.

According to the mythology of science, we will eventually understand living systems if we divide them into increasingly simpler parts--organs, cells, molecules, and finally the fundamental particles and forces studied in physics. This is absurd because neutrons, protons, and electrons, the rudimentary parts of, say, possums, are also the rudimentary parts of every other material system. They don't entail possumness.

The only justification for reductionism is the tacit assumption that it is reversible. To see the fallacy of "reversible reductionism," consider this Possum Principle: Two half-possums do not equal one whole possum.

The possum principle applies to reductionism because dividing a possum into two parts irreversibly annihilates the essential quality of the whole possum: its organization, i.e., the "map" of the relationships among its parts in space and time.

This annihilation is accompanied by two pivotal losses: The possum loses its life, of course, and scientists lose the opportunity to study the map of its organization. In other words, after reducing it, the ostensible object of study no longer exists, either in reality (the living possum) or in concept (the possum's map).

Despite the absurdity of applying nonexistent concepts to nonexistent possums, the lore of science promises that, if we believe strongly enough, and if we work hard and long enough, we'll eventually find our reward in watching the possum reintegrate itself from the "building blocks" to which we've reduced it. Today, this futile hope is often expressed as "self-organization"--a chimerical bootstrap operation that would somehow occur without boots or straps.

Because the limits of the reductionist method aren't explored in normal science, most scientists believe they are studying possums, when they are actually studying possum parts. We are not saying that the study of possum parts is not, in itself, useful. We are saying that understanding possum parts does not entail understanding the possum. This is a result of what Antonio Damasio termed the "binding problem."

The binding problem is ultimately unsolvable because it's an artefact of the reductionist method. That is, applying reductionism necessitates the binding problem. Since this problem can't be solved, it must be avoided. To do this, we must reject reductionism and address wholes as wholes.

Addressing wholes as such is the idealized approach of systems science, as envisioned by Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Indeed, the possum principle is expressed as a basic tenet of systems science, which characterizes a whole as more than the sum of its parts.

This characterization, though valid, is not a practical guide for doing science for two reasons: (a) it does not specify the difference between a whole and the sum of its parts--namely, the map of organization; and (b) it capitulates to reductionism by focusing on "parts." Thus, systems science is compelled to rely on "integration" to bind parts together to reconstruct wholes. Without a conceptual model of the possum-map, however, integration reconstructs, not possums, but the binding problem.

On the other hand, if we begin with a model of the map, integration isn't necessary. Since the map itself is a whole, the collection of parts it interrelates also constitutes a whole. This leads to a far richer characterization of a whole system: A whole comprises parts PLUS a map that specifies the relationships among these parts in space and time.

Is there a conceptual model of this map? There is. TES is the general theory of this map. TES applies the notion that electrons, atoms, molecules, and living organisms share two critical characteristics: (a) All of them are, in Koestler's terminology, "holons"--whole systems, or gestalts, that can't be divided and retain their original characteristics; and (b) these holons can be organized into more complex holons in hierarchical arrangements--"holarchies." The key concept here is "organization."

TES is able to explain the order inherent in holons and holarchies because it is a theory of organization per se. That such a theory is radical to the prevailing paradigms is emphasized by the deep level of abstraction of organization itself.

Like other revolutionary theories, TES originated in a single posited concept. Classical mechanics rested on the concept of mass, and quantum mechanics was founded on the energy posit. TES was derived from the posit of enformy--the fundamental, conserved capacity to organize.

In light of these ideas, we can now revisit the possum principle. What does "two half-possums" mean? Under the paradigms of normal science, the phrase denotes the result of dividing a possum into two equal parts. But under TES, it is meaningless. There's no such thing as a half-possum, because a possum is an indivisible, all-or-nothing gestalt.

In the terminology of TES, a gestalt is an "enformed system." That is, a gestalt maps to a four-dimensional, nonmaterial (i.e., "spiritual"), organizing field that is created and sustained by enformy. This field is acronymed "SELF" from Singular, Enformed, Living Field. The SELF contains the map of organization for enformed systems at all ontological levels.

A possum, then, is a material system whose constituent gestalts--e.g., atoms, molecules, cells, organs--are mapped, first to their own SELFs, then to the possum's SELF. Note that possumness resides in the SELF.

In contrast, a possum carcass is not a gestalt, but a collection of simpler gestalts. That's why these rudimentary parts don't entail possumness.

Under TES, the basic properties and behaviors of the SELF account for the theory's parsimony. For instance, one of the SELF's fundamental behaviors is cohering in space-time. Since its extension in space-time removes the constraints of three dimensions from the SELF, its behaviors are nonlocal and atemporal. As a result, predicted SELF-related phenomena include quantum entanglement, telepathy, precognition, and the homing behaviors of pigeons and other animals.

SELFs not only pre-exist the material systems mapped to them, they post-exist them. That is, the SELF survives death of the body. Yet under TES, survival doesn't always occur at the SELF's highest ontological level. Sub-SELFs might be the only gestalts to survive the death of an individual. As a result, TES predicts three types of "reincarnation:" (a) complete, as in certain religious beliefs; (b) partial, as in psychometry and "cellular memory;" and (c) melded, which accounts for the evolution of new species.

Because it characterizes the SELF, TES is a theory of the origin, maintenance, and evolution of organization per se. TES is the only such paradigm extant. For comparison, Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphogenesis describes the maintenance of morphic fields, but not their origin or evolution.

Since TES addresses wholes as such, we think it occupies a foundational position in science, for instance: (a) TES is the "general systems theory" anticipated by Bertalanffy; (b) it is the foundation of what Willis Harman termed "wholeness science;" (c) it is the foundation of the science of spirit; and (d) it forms the conceptual base for understanding all human motives, limitations, and mythologies--including science.

In short, that's why we can make the extraordinary claim that TES is a transdisciplinary model that underpins all the scientific disciplines.

Of course, we could be wrong. Yet, because TES is the simplest, most parsimonious theory of gestalts available, we think it possesses, at a minimum, profound heuristic value. Hoping we've evoked your serious thinking, we invite your comments, critiques, and questions.

We realize this is little more than a teaser. You can learn more in a new tutorial on enformed and non-enformed systems, which is organized around the question, "Are Living, Conscious Robots Possible?" To learn details of enformy and TES, you can read the contributions linked from the Enformy Page. Or, to actually enjoy learning about enformy and enformy-based technologies, you can read The Last Miracle.