Ken Wilber’s concept of “holons,” an idea he credits to Arthur Koestler, could rightly be called the key building block of his evolutionary model of the Kosmos. Wilber defines holons as wholes that are parts of other wholes, indefinitely. Each whole is simultaneously a part, a whole/part, a
. Therefore, the Kosmos “is not composed
of wholes nor does it have any parts.” Such holonic composition is the case
with atoms, cells, symbols, cultures—the totality of phenomena. The elements of
life can be understood neither as things nor processes, neither as wholes nor
parts, but only as simultaneous whole/parts. Therefore, Wilber regards both the
conventional “atomistic” and “wholistic” conceptions of reality as mistaken.
“There is nothing that isn’t a holon ,
upwardly and downwardly, forever” (Wilber, 33). Wilber’s magnum opus, Sex,
Ecology and Spirituality, can be analyzed as a complex elaboration of the
principles by which a nested holarchy (i.e., hierarchy of holons) has created
and developed the Kosmos through great stages of matter, life, mind and spirit.
This detailed model follows upon an introductory outline of twelve tenets that
describe the nature and function of holons. This essay will briefly examine those
In an earlier paper, I objected to Wilber’s definition of holons as neither things nor processes, for it appeared to me that holons are certainly processes. Wilber counters this criticism in the following way: “To say that holons are processes instead of things is in some ways true, but misses the essential point that processes themselves exist only within other processes. There are no things or processes, only holons” (ibid. 35) Elsewhere, he expands upon this idea:
Before an atom is an atom, it is a
Before a cell is a cell, it is a holon .
Before an idea is an idea, it is a holon .
All of them are wholes that exist in other wholes, and thus they are all
whole/parts, or holons, first and foremost (long before any particular
characteristics are sorted out by us). holon
Likewise, reality might indeed be composed of processes and not things, but all processes are only processes within other processes—that is, they are first and foremost holons. Trying to decide whether the fundamental units of reality are things or processes is utterly beside the point, because either way they are all holons, and centering on one or the other misses the central issue. Clearly some things exist, and some processes exist, but they are each and all holons (ibid. 34).
Now I get it. Wilber views holons as the overarching or primary definition of the basic units of the Kosmos. It is not that there are no such things as quarks (things) or photosynthesis (processes), but he believes all things and processes are viewed more accurately and completely as whole/parts—holons. This holonic world view becomes crucial (not mere semantics) when one seeks to find common “laws” or “patterns” or “habits” among diverse domains of existence, such as the objective realms of the material universe, science and society, and the subjective realms of psychology, spirituality and culture—which is precisely what Wilber has attempted, and to a very impressive degree, accomplished.
To say that the universe is composed primarily of quarks is already to privilege a particular domain. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, to say that the universe is composed primarily of our symbols, since they are all we really know—that, too, is to privilege a particular domain. But to say that the universe is composed of holons neither privileges a domain no implies special fundamentalness for any level. Literature, for example, is not composed of subatomic particles; but both literature and subatomic particles are composed of holons (ibid. 34).
Having defined a useful new way of seeing the building blocks of Kosmos, Wilber attempts to discern what all holons have in common. He introduces his list of tenets of holons by cautioning that there is nothing special about the number twelve; indeed he admits some of the tenets might not hold up, and others can be added. I add my own caveat: Wilber introduces these tenets in a 46-page chapter and then enlarges upon the ideas for the remaining 700 pages of the book. Here, I must skim the surface of the tenets. Therefore, any apparent gaps and shortcomings should be construed as necessitated by my own brevity and not by Wilber’s lack of thoroughness.
1. The first tenet has been stated: Reality is not composed of things or processes, but of holons. “Thus holons within holons within holons means that the world is without foundation in either wholes or parts (and as for any sort of ‘absolute reality’ in the spiritual sense, we will see that it is neither a whole nor part, neither one nor many, but pure groundless Emptiness, or radically nondual Spirit)” (ibid. 35). He later adds, “There is a system, but the system is sliding. It is unendingly, dizzifyingly holarchic” (ibid. 39).
2. Holons display four fundamental capacities: self-preservation, self-adaptation, self-transcendence, and self-dissolution .
a. All holons display some tendency to preserve their own individuality or autonomy. Even a hydrogen atom tends to maintain its identity over time. A living cell displays a more advanced capacity for pattern-preservation, and a human ego even more capacity. “In short, holons are defined, not by the stuff of which they are made (there is no stuff), nor by the context in which they live (though they are inseparable from that), but by the relatively autonomous and coherent pattern they display, and the capacity to preserve that pattern is one characteristic of a
” (ibid. 41). holon
b. In its capacity as a part of a larger whole, every
must adapt or accommodate itself to other holons. Even electrons register and
react to other electrons in their orbital shell. “As a whole, it remains
itself; as a part, it must fit in—and those are tenets 2a and 3b. We can
just as well think of these two opposed tendencies as a holon ’s agency and communion.
Its agency—its self-asserting, self-preserving, assimilating tendencies—expresses
its wholeness, its relative autonomy; whereas its communion—its
participatory, bonding, joining tendencies—expresses its partness, its
relationship to something larger” (ibid. 41). Later in the book, Wilber
explores how an imbalance of either of these tendencies in any system becomes pathology. holon
c. Different wholes come together to form new and dissimilar wholes. For example, two hydrogen atoms joining with an oxygen atom to form a molecule of water. This is self-transcendence, not just assimilation or adaptation, but a transformation that results in something novel and emergent. “This introduces a vertical dimension… In self-transcendence, agency and communion do not just interact; rather, new forms of agency and communion emerge through symmetry breaks, through the introduction of new and creative twists in the evolutionary stream” (ibid. 44). This generates the sudden leaps and apparent discontinuities often observed in evolution of any kind.
d. Holons that are built up can also break down. This is self-dissolution. When holons disintegrate, they do so along the vertical sequence in which they were assembled (emerged). The above four forces are in constant dynamic tension, whether one is referring to atoms and cells, or teen-agers and parents, or individuals and societies, etc.
3. Holons emerge. First quarks, then atoms, molecules, proteins, cells, and so on, right up to writers and readers and beyond. The properties of emergent holons cannot be deduced from their subholons, nor can any
be reduced to its components. (A human person is more than a collection of organ
4. Holons emerge holarchically. That is, hierarchically, as a series of increasing whole/parts. “Organisms contain cells, but not vice versa; cells contain molecules, but not vice versa; molecules contain atoms, but not vice versa. And it is that not vice versa, at each stage, that constitutes unavoidable asymmetry and hierarchy (holarchy)” (Ibid. 49).
5. Each emergent
transcends but includes its
predecessors. While adding its own new form and qualities, it preserves the
previous holons themselves, but negates their isolatedness. “All of the lower
is in the higher, but not all of the higher is in the lower. For example,
hydrogen atoms are in a water molecule, but the water molecule is not in the
atoms.” Therefore, at a given level of the holarchy, a particular system is
internal to the systems above it and external to the systems below it. (ibid.
51). This concept later plays strongly into Wilber’s apologia for the ego
structure remaining after enlightenment. holon
6. The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower. Even though a newly emergent level transcends the lower level, it does not violate the laws of the lower level. “My body follows the laws of gravity; my mind follows other laws, such as those of symbolic communication and linguistic syntax; bit if my body falls off a cliff, my mind goes with it… Nothing in the laws governing physical particles can predict the emergence of a wristwatch, but nothing in the wristwatch violates the laws of physics” (ibid. 54). The second part of this tenet, that higher-order systems influence the probabilities of their subholons is thoroughly explored by Rupert Sheldrake in his morphogenic field theory, which Wilber discusses later in the book. Here, I would say that the smooth operation of a well-made wristwatch could help determine that the spring, ratchets and worm-gears inside that watch will arrive at a particular church at a particular time every Sunday morning.
7. The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises determines whether it is “shallow” or “deep”; and the number of holons on any given level we shall call its “span.” Atoms, for example, have a shallow depth (they are composed of at least two lower levels), but a vast span, filling the universe. Then molecules appeared, at a greater depth (composed of atoms), but with less span (there are a zillion times fewer molecules atoms in the universe).
8. Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span. “The greater the depth of a
the more precarious its existence, since its existence depends also on the
existence of a whole series of other holons internal to it” (ibid. 56). The
greater the depth of a holon ,
the greater its degree of consciousness. Indeed, evolution is properly viewed
as a spectrum of consciousness. “One can perhaps begin to see that a
spiritual dimension is built into the very fabric, the very depth, of
the Kosmos” (ibid. 57). holon
9. Destroy any type of
and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below
it. Destroying all molecules would wipe out all cells, but the atoms
and subatomic particles would survive intact. Therefore, the less depth of
a holon , the more
fundamental it is to the Kosmos, because so many higher orders depend on
it. On the other hand, the greater a holon ’s
depth, the more significant it is. A human being is not very
fundamental. We could all evaporate tomorrow and most other species would breathe
a collective sigh of relief. But as high-level organisms (greater depth), we
include and embody more of the Kosmos—we embrace, reflect and signify more
of the Kosmos than a kudzu vine because we are comprised of countless more
10. Holarchies coevolve. Holons do not emerge (evolve) alone, because there are no loner holons, but only fields within fields within fields. Gregory Bateson called this principle coevolution. This means that the unit of evolution is not an isolated
but the whole ecosystem. Wilber puts it thus: “All agency is always
agency-in-communion” (ibid. 64). holon
11. The micro is in relational exchange with the macro at all levels of its depth. Each
itself through relational exchanges with holons at the same depth in its environment.
Wilber gives the example of a human being, who for reasons of simplification,
can be said to consist of just the levels of matter, life and mind. The
physical body depends on physical laws and on food production and consumption, and
on sexual reproduction, which depend upon labor organized in an economy for
basic material exchanges riding on a local and even global network of social
and ecosystems. These exchanges occur at the level (depth) of the physiosphere
and biosphere. Human beings also reproduce themselves mentally through
exchanges at the level of culture and within symbolic environments, which
Wilber calls the noosphere. For short, he dubs this tenet, “same-level
relational exchange.” holon
12. Evolution has directionality. Holons evolve in the direction of:
a) increasing complexity. This is simultaneously a new simplicity, because the emergent whole, as a new single system is simpler than its many components.
b) Increasing differentiation/integration. Wilber explains this by quoting Alfred Whitehead: “The many [differentiation] become one [integration] and are increased by one [the new
c) Increasing organization/structuration. Evolution moves to ever-more complex systems and to ever-higher levels of organization.
d) Increasing relative autonomy. Holons become better able to adapt and survive in the midst of environmental changes (physical, social, cultural). We humans made it through the Ice Ages. Wooly Mammoths died out when the weather grew too warm. “By the time we reach the noosphere, in humans, relative autonomy is of such a high degree that it can produce not just differentiation from the environment, which is necessary, but dissociation from the environment, which is disastrous—an expression of pathological agency that, among many other things, lands it squarely in ecological hell” (ibid. 71). Autonomy is always only relative because there are no independent wholes, only whole/parts. As Wilber puts it, the president gets our country into war, and now we are all included in that war, whether we like it or not! “Thus, autonomy, like all aspects of a
, is sliding”
(ibid. 71). holon
e) Increasing Telos. “An acorn’s code (its DNA) has oak written all over it,” Wilber says. Indeed, the entire universe has a wonderful goal embedded in its “code,” unfolding through eons of evolution. If this sounds like the theologies of Paul Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo, it is because Wilber has been influenced by their writings (especially Aurobindo’s The Life Divine). “A final Omega Point? That would imply a final Whole, and there is no such
existence.” Wilber writes. “But perhaps we can interpret it differently. Who
knows, perhaps Telos, perhaps Eros, moves the entire Kosmos, and God may indeed
be an all-embracing chaotic Attractor, acting, as Whitehead said, throughout
the world by gentle persuasion toward love” (ibid. 78). holon
Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution.
: Shambhala, Boston
 Contrast this attitude with the stance of the Kashmiri Shaivites, Kabbalists, et al. who take their numbers as absolutes. “No, not twenty-five tattvas, you bloody fool! Thirty-six!” Wilber addresses this attachment to numerical exactitude: “The number of levels in any
has an element of arbitrariness to it, simply because there is no upper or
lower limit to a manifest hierarchy and therefore no absolute referent” (SES,