Emergence is the main element of the structure of reality that I trumpet on this site.

But one essential aspect of emergence is another core concept called Holons. Emergence is a big, fat general principle and holons are distinct, measurable parts of it. This gem of a concept was created by the wonderful free-range philosopher Arthur Koestler, an under-appreciated thinker of the 20th century. Once you have this lens in place, many things reveal their true nature with delightful clarity. I’ve written about Holons before, but not for a while so here’s a refresher.

It begins with this: Everything is simultaneously a part and a whole. Thus “Holon”.

Every level of reality/physical existence is self-contained and self-absorbed. For example, the atomic level, the cellular level, and the level of animal species. Each one is an emergent property of the/a previous level. Each one a surprise bouquet from the magician’s sleeve. The lower level is the part, the upper level is the whole. Each is both part and whole, depending on which way you are moving and looking. Generally, these levels are like parallel lines apparently never meeting yet wholly dependent on each other. There is no handshake and nod from the next level down. They don’t know that we are up here and except for humanity, we (animal species) don’t know they are down there. This sounds a bit like the description of dimensions in the multiverse theory, these dimensions are happening in the same place and the same time but unaware of each other, separated by a veil of sorts.
There appears to be a universal rule though, that each layer acts for the good of the layer above. Every layer of constituent parts shows a real dedication to their work and the greater good of something they are utterly blind to. They are blind to it, but something mysterious and quite other may not be, or else why this consistent rule? Why the consistent effort to obey it?

Anyway, for example, let us start with an ant1. A clearly self-contained independent organism, running around busily doing chores.
Looking downward, into the constituent parts of the ant we find:

  • Organ systems
  • Tissues types
  • Cells
  • Organelles
  • Molecules
  • Atoms
  • Sub-atomic particles

And here we lose the thread as our resolving power fades out. Every level is beautifully composed of the next level down and beautifully composes the next level up. Each is discernibly separate and autonomous in its rules and behavior. Each does the right thing without a trace of awareness of the role it is playing let ALONE the role played by the next level upward in the organization. Now let us return to the ant. Actively communicating with its sisters, it gathers information, solves problems, completes tasks and moves on to others, yet this individual cannot conceive of the hive that it is effectively like a single cell of. In the 100 million years that this incredibly successful strategy has been humming along, not a single individual ant ever HAS conceived of the hive it is a member of. Being limited to knowledge of its own level is required for it to fulfill its function. Knowledge of the next level of organization is useless here and necessary there.
Looking “upward” into higher levels of organization we find:

  • The hive
  • The species
  • Populations
  • Ecosystems
  • Biomes
  • Biosphere (Planetary Ecosystem)

And just to finish

  • Solar system
  • Galaxy
  • Galaxy clusters
  • Known universe

Again we lose resolving power looking outward. Concluding that there is no more going on outside this organizational box of inward down and upward out because we can’t see any farther would be sheer solipsism. Concluding we know “the true meaning” of the systems we are tiny cells or atoms of might be a bit like asking that ant “what it all means”. Given power of speech she might sound like quite a few humans would: “Who knows, I just do what I have to do.”

I didn’t come this far to say we are merely ants. Some scientific philosophers have only been comfortable with diminishing explanations. That is, with conclusions about our place that somehow seem to reduce us to a comfortably handled size and strip away all that is beautiful and meaningful as if it were irrelevant and a foolish comfort like a teddy bear. As Terrence McKenna said, “The life sciences have Physics envy.” Envy of experiments with perfectly replicable results to three decimal places of accuracy. Even though biological research can’t achieve those results due to the squishy mutability of the subject matter, those representing the field often represent the outcomes this way. This is more a problem of the way this is communicated to non-scientists than it is to those in the field.

I want to tell you that we are (at one level) VERY like ants and other creatures too. I think we need to understand this fully and deeply: The things it drives us to, the ways it guides us, manipulates and limits us. If we are being driven down antlike trails of behavior but turn away from that knowledge because it evokes horror or because of the depressing flatness it suggests, then we have given up just at the moment we might begin to understand our predicament and possibly make some corrections in the system. It is opting to return to “the matrix”.

Humans are exceptional in a number of ways that nothing else on earth is…simply because we have done a lot of legwork to uncover these systems and begin to understand them. Leaving out aliens, it might be that our world is the only place in the universe where the structure of the systems has been cataloged and examined as it has here. There is no doubt that the elephants and dolphins, dogs and cats (and bugs and plants) are our blood family and from the point of view of existence, our equals. But they haven’t pried up the cover on the machine and begun sketching and discussing the mechanism. We are like their family but with the power of attorney and only now beginning to suspect there is an ethical obligation to our job. This is where we find ourselves. Our rules as the “component parts level” of an unknown entity emergent from our actions are the rules we find ourselves obeying automatically without even noticing that they are rules, let alone that an alternative option might exist.

As stated, no holon truly understands the next level of organization because it plays by utterly different rules, and is unpredictable from the nature of its constituent parts. It has a different nature. I believe that our efforts to be wise and clever and decent, to make beautiful things and communicate better are not wasted efforts. Something at a higher level of organization is depending on these efforts to be healthy and whole. On our level of reality, this is the business to be done. Every level of the Holarchy has its equivalents to wisdom and beauty, to right thought and action. We should be damn glad when our constituent parts are showing these traits.

It’s difficult to imagine what levels of the universe are depending on us to come through this way. Whatever emergent thing our lives are generating is likely a component of some still more mysterious emergence above it (that may or may not exist yet). Since the whole evolving Universe reveals earlier “geological layers” of emergence it would be the height of tiny minded arrogance to suggest that the universe conducts no organized business above the level we can observe. This line of thought may not produce a lot of practical knowledge but it seems very on point to develop a useful new paradigm of fundamental principles. If we consider what all the observable levels of reality suggest about consistent patterns and purposes we will be looking through the right lenses at all new, developing knowledge.


1 Sorry, I always start with an ant. 🐜