Dualism, Monism, and Holism

on February 12, 2012

So — it’s time to tackle holism.

I’m finding, however, that I can’t simply jump into the middle of the story. I need to start with holism’s predecessor, scientific materialism, in order to trace out where holism came from and the special problems it was designed to solve.

In the previous entry, I discussed the associations that each socially-based vision forms with the scientifically-based vision that comes before it and the inner experience-based vision that comes after. These relationships appear simple and obvious to us, because they derive from the built-in affinities that human societies share with the natural world and with the human mind.

Reconciling scientific and inner experience visions is far more difficult, however, because the physical universe and the realm of dreams, hallucinations, and mystical intimations are as far apart on the spectrum of human experience as it is possible to get. Not only do we run into philosophical contradictions if we try to take both of them at face value, but even the seemingly elementary question of how mind and matter interact remains a profound mystery.

And yet, despite these impediments, our abiding conviction that all our experiences must derive from a common source compels us to keep devising formulas that will allow us to regard these two aspects of existence as facets of a single reality.

Through most of human history, those formulas relied on some form of dualism — that is, on the assumption that there is a realm of spirit which is separate from but interwoven with the realm of matter. Dreams and trances were explained as visits to, or visitations from, the spirit world, and the soul was conceived as a spirit dwelling within the body.

This was a simple but effective formulation. It served equally well on both the personal and the cosmic level, and it endured for an extremely long period of time and through a succession of visions. The only problem was that the spirit realm was entirely imaginary — and the more we learned about the physical universe, the less reason we found to believe in a separate realm of being lying just beyond the limits of our perception.

In prehistoric times, it had been easy to imagine that there were invisible spirits moving among us and even inhabiting familiar objects. By the time of the first civilizations, the spirit realm had been removed to the heavens and was seen as exerting only indirect control over events on Earth. By the Middle Ages, it had retreated still further, to an immaterial domain outside the sphere of the fixed stars.

And after that, there was no place left to go. With the birth of scientific materialism in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance — and particularly once Copernicus had reduced the heavens to a mere collection of suns and planets — there was no remaining location for a spirit realm, either on Earth or in the skies.

This was a serious conundrum. We humans are not very original when it comes to devising new formulations to reconcile each pair of visions, and now one of our major templates had become unusable. Western culture was consequently thrown into a prolonged crisis of skepticism, memorably expressed by the poet John Donne in 1611:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.

In the middle 1600’s, however, the philosopher RenĂ© Descartes managed to restore a limited form of dualism. He drew upon both the reason and scientific materialism visions, started off with the confident premise “I think therefore I am,” and concluded that mind must be a substance independent of the body whose essence was pure thought.

Descartes never came up with a plausible explanation for how pure thought could interact with a purely physical body — or, for that matter, how a Divine Creator whose nature was also one of pure thought could interact with the physical universe. His arguments appeared persuasive only because people still saw the world in essentially religious terms, with just a light scientific overlay.

But the dance of the visions never ceases, and two centuries later, religion had grown much weaker and scientific materialism stronger. When the hierarchy vision failed in the 1840’s — and with it the conceptual basis for belief in a Supreme Being — Cartesian dualism was fatally wounded as well.

At that point, the scientific materialism vision began to proclaim a bold new credo: that everything which existed was material in nature and governed by natural law. This belief would eventually develop into a powerful alternative to dualism — but its initial impact was both narrower and largely negative.

The problem was that for people who were just starting to throw off the assumptions of dualism, the most obvious way to conceive of a universe of matter alone was to equate it with the material half of the old matter-spirit divide. But that meant rejecting as illusion everything which had formerly been attributed to spirit — morality, free will, love, and all the rest — and concluding that reality consisted of nothing more than atoms whizzing through the void.

This was a thoroughly dismal prospect, and many Victorians understandably continued to insist that there must be a spiritual element distinct from the physical universe whose reality science would eventually be forced to acknowledge. Even scientists were often attracted to the philosophy of vitalism, which postulated that life processes would never be explained through the laws of physics but only by appealing to an intangible vital force.

This conflict would continue into the early 20th century, ending only with the failure of the reason vision in the 1910’s and the seeming triumph of mechanism over vitalism. But even as the struggle was taking shape, hints were already appearing of a third alternative — and in those hints it is possible to perceive the rudiments of holism.

During the final phases of the countercultural period that had begun in the 1840’s, when attitudes towards materialism were still in flux, there were a number of materialists in good standing who were prepared to speculate about the role of life and mind in the larger scheme of things. In the 1850’s, for example, the leading mechanistic biologist of the day, Herbert Spencer, began suggesting that the ruling principle of the universe was the evolution of ever-greater complexity, along with ever-greater integration.

And in 1866, another mechanistic biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, marveled, “We class sensations, along with emotions, and volitions, and thoughts, under the common heading of states of consciousness; but what consciousness is we know not, and how it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp in the story.”

There are a number of points of interest in Huxley’s comment. One is his extremely early use of the phrase “states of consciousness.” Another is his apparent exasperation with the idea that “irritating nervous tissue” could provide an adequate explanation of such states.

Even more striking, however, is his comparison of consciousness to Aladdin’s Djin. On one hand, this image evokes the ancient belief in a spirit realm from which supernatural beings might emerge to meddle with the everyday world. On the other, it suggests that science itself would have to become stranger and more magical if it was to have any hope of dealing with the facts of consciousness.

And finally, Huxley’s interest in states of consciousness can be seen as an indication that holism was beginning to come under the mentorship of the chaos vision. Unlike the reason vision, chaos acknowledged the full spectrum of mental states, no matter how bizarre — and one of the challenges faced by the association between chaos and holism would be to encompass that entire range of inner experience.

“Consciousness” is arguably the most appropriate term for the intersection of chaos and holism. The word itself implies that even mind can be treated as a scientific phenomenon, but only once science has moved beyond a first-order understanding of materialism.

In the 1910’s, an emphasis on consciousness would converge with Spencer’s image of a cosmos of ever-increasing complexity, and it would suddenly become possible to perceive mind as an emergent property of matter. At that point Cartesian dualism would finally be superseded by an entirely new approach that reconciled science and inner experience within a common evolutionary framework.

The process of arriving at that reconciliation, however, was neither easy nor direct. By 1870, a new partnership between the reason and scientific materialism visions had taken over the direction of society, and during the period of its dominance the battle-lines between mechanism and vitalism became ever more sharply drawn, leaving little middle ground.

In the 1880’s and 90’s, committed materialists grew increasingly determined to expunge every last hint of dualism, and the term “materialistic monism” began to be used to express the conviction that the physical universe was all that existed. But at the same time, there was a powerful last-ditch effort to hang onto the distinction between matter and spirit, manifested in the birth of Fundamentalism, in the widespread popularity of occultism, and in a final upsurge of vitalist theorizing and experimentation.

Holism did not fade out completely in those years, but it was visible chiefly in the great contention between mechanism and vitalism over which could provide a more adequate account of consciousness and its relationship to the material world. That marginalization would end only with the coming of the 20th century.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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