Holons are simultaneously, wholes and parts. A cell in your body is a discrete whole object viewed one way and a tiny aspect of your system viewed in another. We are holons, soulful individuals autonomously striving but also near invisible constituents of swarms that compose human communities.
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?
A Google assisted remake of Powers of 10. Nicely done, about 3 minutes long. Maya is the Sanskrit word for illusion in Hinduism and Buddhism. It originally meant “To measure”. I don’t necessarily believe the “we’re living in a simulation” theory but if we are, the farthest out and farthest in moments in the video would be a pair of very effective walls defining the edges.
“For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything.”
– Pensees, Section II.72
There are patterns in humanity that are so obvious that they become invisible. The animal nature of humans becomes invisible as we live it. As our eyes let in light they simultaneously spray “humanity paint” over everything we see. Living as an animal means following your nature seamlessly with no coloring outside the lines. This isn’t forced. We don’t obey our natures, we ARE one with our natures. When you were a teenager, exploring new feelings and experiences at high levels of intensity, there were no breaks to do something else. At the end of the day you didn’t hang up your teenage skin and settle into a hot bath to relax. At every age you have done as you wished AS THOUGH it was free will when it was really a human animal living its nature.
We don’t see what we are a part of …and this is our fundamental blindness. The blindness of the part towards the whole. We don’t see our human nature just as the fish famously doesn’t see the water. And this is a small part of what we don’t see. If we focus hard we can feel our animal natures, we can see them informing our actions…maybe we can even see them around the world echoed billions of times: The same general patterns of adorable babies and cute kids and teenagers, young marrieds, middle aged and elderly. And we can see the castes of humanity as well, the poor and rich, craftsmen, warriors, scholars, politicians, clergy. And the styles of humanity, modest, canny, rude, sexy, moralistic, secretive, shy or outrageous. In the interests of brevity I’m not cataloging all the details, there are many more varieties but far from infinite. We are the jumble of humanity, each one the center of the universe, and each a tiny widget in a cosmic machine.
The earth is covered in all its livable zones with humans acting EXACTLY like humans. We snap into the arrangements humans make like we were crystals forming. Trying to understand the way our sacred absolutely personal lives arise from templated scripting and that both are equally real is like holding your hand in flame or your head underwater. Do you know why you can’t think long and hard about your animal nature? It’s because you are not supposed to. And it’s your own animal nature that stops you.
Whoa, there partner, what about sex and cookies?
No matter what sort of creature you are, you are supposed to stay on task and not start addressing the fourth wall.
That is the first level of blindness. “I am not an animal, I am a human and free to be anything I can conceive.” But certain restrictions may apply. The basic human response is: “I meant to do that”. There is a story in every species. There are parameters, and do’s and don’ts: A “script bible” if you will. Each is a strategy, scripted and programmed. Each is given an allotment of free will and sentience encased within the borders of that strategy. Microbes less than insects, insects less than mice, mice less than wolves, wolves less than man, man less than…less than something that man can’t really imagine because that’s where the damn walls are.
I told you all that to tell you this: There are levels of blindness above that level and there are patterns and meanings above that level. And if you think it’s hard to really grasp your animal nature and your free/not free existence, this next level is something almost no one perceives. What could that be? What body or pattern are we molecules or cells of?
The part we can see from where we are standing is the human hive. It is the millions of people forming an organism without knowing it. We say city, or we say nation, we make those distinctions but we can’t really feel the emergent thing we help to make. We cannot really relate to an autonomous oceanic organism with ourselves cast in the part of kidney cells.
Do you think your cells perceive you, as you know yourself? Do they comprehend your loneliness or your love of being by the ocean? And yet they are the fundamental parts from which THAT you emerges. They are you, but they don’t know it. They go about your business but they don’t know it. And you go about their business but YOU don’t know it. And you are a cell in a non-perceived organism that doesn’t know you, but you work for each other. Both blind and both presumably part of something larger that neither of you suspects.
At the level of cells in the human body everything is playing a part. They aren’t random meaningless “creatures” in an absurd universe, they are simple diligent agents working in a complex bureaucracy that they cannot conceive of. They also can’t know the highly specific role they are playing. What matters is that they do it and they do. And the parallel on our level is that you play a part (or perhaps many) in keeping the organism you are part of healthy and guiding its course. Your politics, spirituality and even sense of humor play a part. Be you all the way, and…imagine the larger world.
If you have an agonizingly hard time finding meaning in the universe remember your nature has you boxed in with an airtight seal. Information that is not about being your animal self is kept from you. The fact that the lens you get to look through doesn’t show the meaning and value in life the way you hope to see them only tells you about the limits of the resolving power of that one lens. It might be that with this vacuum bottle open the whole goddamn universe is out there singing.
‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’
Imagine having a secret life… that is secret even from you. Well, you do. You have one normal, sunlit life and two fun-house mirror lives framing it like bookends.
1. You the colony, You the hive.
Imagine yourself as a towering robot of staggering complexity. You are a city on stilts. Your head parts the clouds. As you look closer you see organised systems processing virtual cataracts of information, maintaining homeostasis, making repairs and patrolling for enemies. Looking still closer you realize that these systems are made of tiny individuals, the citizens of you. They labor autonomously and harmoniously in coordination with billions of others. They die and are replaced by the next generation. Their ancestors joined forces from smaller and simpler associations to create ever more complex and diverse systems. Each of these deals involved risk and compromise. These bargains succeeded and prospered in the likes of you. Most of these citizens swear allegiance to you and the republic for which you stand. Most are on your side. But there are neutral, disinterested characters along for the ride because it suits them, they aren’t against you, but they have no loyalty to you. Their work serves your interests or you’d kick them out. Now and then there are criminals and revolutionaries bent on damage or worse. Sometimes they attack openly but other times they drift through, casing the joint, hats pulled low over their eyes, watching for the cops.
2. The Middle Life.
You as you already know you. What can I add, except that this is the only life you are supposed to notice. This is our “Matrix”: It isn’t evil, it’s simply that every nesting doll level of reality is blinkered so as to pour all their energy into the task at hand for that part of the infrastructure. It is almost impossible to think about things outside the middle life for more than moments at a time.
3. Tiny, Particulate You…
This is the hardest level to see and understand. The problem is that when you are a cell in a body or an atom in an element, you aren’t supposed to be bothering about the larger thing you are a component of. You do your job alongside untold others and a new level of organization emerges. Gravity masses atoms and matter emerges, cells cooperate and organisms emerge. When people gather and cooperate what emerges? Friends, lovers, families, tribes, towns, city states, nations, and unified nations…but just barely. This is our current ceiling. Right now we labor to construct a human network that unites nations and we stumble like a toddler again and again. This threshold is the battlefield now. It won’t be forever, almost every social construct in our lives was a controversial invention once. But ever more complex human molecules form naturally, building their own foundation till it holds the weight. If you doubt me, remember nations are a modern history invention. Through most of our cultural history there was no Italy or France, there were just territories and city states and local languages and dialects measured by the mile. But remember, the cells in our bodies once struggled to join forces, I believe that struggle and our own are contiguous. the struggle is this: Will a new self exist or not? We will blend at a higher level or will we not? There are fascinating similarities between hives and minds and cities. The “from the ground up”organization. The voting or deciding by swarm behavior. The individual self-organizing components and the amazing result that only emerges from their day to day actions. A self made of many. E pluribus unum, people: It’s on the damn money.
As I’ve written elsewhere, a “third mind” emerges from two close people. It is the thing you love or hate about being with them. And on up through human groupings by size the same thing repeats, the generation of a group mind. A mind with perceivable traits, even a sort of “personality”. But as the group size increases, it is harder and harder to perceive the part of this mind that is us. This is why people are all locked into the sense of being separate, isolated beings. Our experience is the human version of a single cell trying to comprehend the body it serves. That difficulty must not stop us from trying to make sense of this arrangement. If I’m right about this, some of the implications are cosmic.
- There are natural algorithms running human groups.
- These rules generate human castes such a shaman, head-man, warrior, worker
- There are rules in place for the general well being of the “hive” such as the balance between conservative and progressive. Protecting the inside but not going so far as attacking self (ie: cultural autoimmune disorders such as Hitler or Pol Pot)
- The length of human life span is the time tick the hive uses to maintain continuity but allow for change. Young people are open to change, old people are not. Change is allowed with a governor.
- There may be forces beyond our ken that cause hives to behave in ways we think are random.
- We do the bidding of these hive mind rules without knowing it
- Etc, etc.
If we can begin to see and understand the rules, there is some chance of not always robotically expressing them. There are times when the rules that generate our behavior may be horrible or promote continued injustice. Robotic hive rules could easily lead us toward self destruction in an age of high technology. This was perfectly stated by Einstein in 1945:
“The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind…”
Recognizing the rules for what they are might give us a critical bit traction resisting them, or going around them. Hive rules drive ethnic hatreds and the kind of structural oppression of women we see almost everywhere. Getting mad at racists helps a bit to balance them, seeking equality for women is always the right thing to do, but these acts are like pushing against gravity; it will be there when you stop pushing. It’s time to learn the rules and stand a chance to fight the bad ones with real knowledge.
Fast travel to farthest space and deepest inner space by factoring each distance. Science has advanced since this was made but it still does a brilliant job of mind stretching. Balanced between quantum foam and infinite space our lives are utterly mysterious. This is very nice way of FEELING the Holon levels that stack to make the world. See my posts on Holons if that is a baffling sentence. Right here.
1977 POWERS OF TEN © 1977 EAMES OFFICE LLC
“A colony of honeybees is, then, far more than an aggregation of individuals, it is a composite being that functions as an integrated whole. Indeed, one can accurately think of a honeybee colony as a single living entity, weighing as much as 5 kilograms (10 pounds) and performing all of the basic physiological processes that support life: ingesting and digesting food, maintaining nutritional balance, circulating resources, exchanging respiratory gases, regulating water content, controlling body temperature, sensing the environment, deciding how to behave, and achieving locomotion.”
There is an idea gaining credibility that just as hives behave as individuals made up of the independently moving “cells”, that primate brains are almost like hives unto themselves…vast collectives of caste system individuals handling tasks that cumulatively produce the neurological reality experienced by the individual. This can’t be described as a final proven fact, but the model holds up, right down to the notion of specific cells that are needed being produced. algorithmically to changing needs. This extends to decision-making, which is the main subject of Honeybee Democracy. The bees exercise a collective intelligence that mimics not just small-group decision-making but the cognitive deliberations of our own brains:
“We will see that the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of bees in a honeybee swarm, just like the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of neurons in a human brain, achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective.”
Like many biologists, Seeley sees a bee colony as not just a collection of individuals but as a sort of super-organism. He continues:
“For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything.” Pascal – Pensees, Section II.72
Lots of posts on this blog have referenced this concept but not explicitly by name. (for example see Everything is at least 3 things)
Introducing the Holon. This gem was created by the wonderful Arthur Koestler, one of the very under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century. Once you have this beautiful lens in place so many things snap into delightful clarity.