Keith Ward on Materialism, 11     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

“Modern physics thus suggests a good deal of agnosticism about the hidden nature of the physical cosmos”, Ward concludes – about what is experienced by us and is called by us the physical cosmos. “It completely overturns the view of nature as a mechanical, deterministic and atomistic system – the ‘clockwork universe’ – and replaces it with a much more organic or holistic picture of an entangled, emergent, open, intelligible and semiotic universe.” He will now go on to give brief explanations of these terms – organic, holistic, entangled, emergent, open, intelligible, and semiotic – with regard to the universe as conceived by contemporary physics.

“The quantum universe is entangled, in that non-locality – the correlated behaviour of widely separated (‘non-local’) wave-particles – means that no physical event is truly ‘atomistic’ – isolatable from the rest of the universe. Niels Bohr spoke of the ‘inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe’. The universe is holistic, in that the nature of the whole helps to determine the behaviour of the parts. Larger systems constrain the behaviour of their constituent elements, and there are forms of ‘top-down’ causation that introduce causal influences that are not simply the result of the addition of many isolated causal factors. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

I want to point to the close relation in substance, of the terms entangled and holistic to philosophical idealism in a stricter and more specific sense than the one defended by Ward. Some philosophers and intellectuals, influenced by postmodernism, Adorno, Lévinas still complain that such idealistic holism lands us in a totalizing they find to be totalitarian. That is because of their particular understanding of 1) the true nature of idealism and in particular of personalistic idealism, and 2) the fact that the true whole, rightly understood (to the extent it can be understood), the whole that is truth and reality, is in fact the best protection against the totalitarianisms that seek falsely – and, of necessity, forcibly, by means of ideology and propaganda – to elevate relative wholes to the status of the absolute whole or at least the highest relevant whole, by reference to which they can then justify their oppressive action.

Holism of course exists in many different forms, not just in philosophy, but in theology, psychology, education, anthropology, sociology,  political philosophy, economics, systems theory, ecology, New Age spirituality, alternative medicine. Philosophers distinguish between different kinds of holism and use many terms to specify them, such as semantic holism, mental holism, content holism, property holism, relational holism, epistemological holism, metaphysical holism, confirmation holism, nomological holism. Some but not all of them are related to or exclusively related to the developments in physics discussed by Ward. I am not familiar with all of these developments, but from what I have seen, it is striking how few of their representatives relate them to or are even aware of the resemblance in important respects with the holism of modern idealism.

New Age thinkers persist, without exception, in speaking of their new, holistic paradigm as replacing the crude materialism of the past centuries of the West. They neglect entirely not just the presence and sometimes even dominance of philosophical idealism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but often also the renewal of the esoteric tradition ever since the Renaissance and not least in the nineteenth century. In reality, the New Age movement is just a late variation of this esoteric renewal in the West, which already in the nineteenth-century considered itself to be bringing a new age of spiritual enlightenment.

I have written about these things at greater length on several occasions. I have tried to point out that there are problems with modern Western esotericism inasmuch as it is mixed up with distinct secular ideologies and cultural currents as well as with certain interpretations of the Biblical eschatology. But there are other forms, which avoid such pitfalls and manage instead to reconnect more rigorously with the more authentic tradition of Platonism and Biblical esotericism, as well as the traditions of the East.

In both forms, it sometimes influenced philosophical idealism, and in the latter, rigorous forms, it is still, I think, of some importance for it, not least since it points to the need for, indeed makes inevitable, a creative rethinking of the relation between the specifically Western discipline of philosophy and those other traditions of human thought that we find in the East. René Guénon, it should be remembered, was reluctant to call himself a philosopher because of the constitutive limitations of this Western discipline, which he found in its entirety to be non-traditional in a way other traditions of thought, or rather, the genuine traditions, the ones he favoured, were not. He went too far here, and is counterbalanced within the traditionalist school by Coomaraswamy and others, who saw more clearly the other dimensions of classical philosophy. We have to use the term tradition in a weaker sense when we speak of Western philosophy, at least modern Western philosophy and some of the classical schools, but some schools, and preeminently Platonism (i.e., Neoplatonism) of course, did from the beginning assimilate and reformulate traditional elements in the Guénonian sense in response and as an alternative to the general sceptical and sophistic development of early Greek philosophy.

Ward’s use of the terms entangled and holistic is descriptive of a main feature of much of both the nineteenth-century tradition of idealism and, mutatis mutandis, of the Platonic tradition. What should be especially noted here is that those traditions were entangled and holistic in Ward’s broad sense without – or, in the case of nineteenth-century idealism, not primarily with – regard to scientific knowledge. Their avant-la-lettre holism was a general metaphysical and epistemological one closer to some strands of holism in contemporary philosophy, and applied equally to other branches of knowledge, like history, the arts, the humanities in general, the social sciences properly conceived.

I normally discuss idealism in such terms, and a clear example of this will be the series ‘Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philsophy’ of which I have as yet published only the first part. I have not used the term “holism”, but kept to the terms used by the historical idealists to whom I feel closest. I could consider doing so, but if so, it would be if not necessary so at least desirable first of all to relate systematically the truths of at least some of the contemporary forms of philosophical holism to idealism: to holistically relate, as it were, their partial truths to the holistic whole of idealism. For that purpose it would be possible to draw on the work of some contemporary idealist philosophers. But there are countless thinkers, on various levels, all over the world who already do precisely this.

It would also be necessary to do something that is less common and more urgent, namely to make clearer what distinguishes a proper and disciplined form of holism from loose and overly romantic ones of the kind that flourish in much of contemporary pop-psychology and – spirituality, and which did so also to some extent in speculatively or otherwise excessive forms of nineteenth-century idealism as well as, and not least, in their wider reception and interpretation.

The criticism of idealism on the grounds of the alleged vagueness of its holism was misconceived in principle as set forth by the early analytical philosophers. But as part of the broader analysis of what I call the “pantheistic revolution” in its romantic version, an analysis to which both some Christian theologians and some broadly classicist thinkers in the tradition that was primarily French but in some respects culminated with Irving Babbitt and the New Humanism, the criticism is of central and lasting importance.

The common formulation “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” I find to be true in the sense that the whole qua whole is not constituted exclusively by its parts. But it seems it could be misleading if it is taken to mean that the result of the mere addition of the parts is something that is more than their sum – precisely the position Ward himself here rejects. On an epistemological level of holism which does not take – or have to take – into account the part-transcending, non-part, non-composite nature of the whole qua whole, it seems quite meaningful to say merely that the sum of the parts is not the parts qua parts. For this, properly understood, and given the accessibility of that sum, or rather, the mere approximation of it that is all that is available to and attainable by finite beings, makes all the difference with regard to the understanding of the parts, i.e. of the parts qua parts of the relative whole that is their sum, the totality of parts. We need not go beyond this to see how “the nature of the whole helps to determine the behaviour of the parts”, how “larger systems constrain the behaviour of their constituent elements”, that “there are forms of ‘top-down’ causation” (we of course have to change some of these terms when we move beyond physics).

On the other hand, I would suggest that the aspect or dimension (both are of course somewhat inexact terms) of the whole that is indeed more than the sum of the parts is also manifest to some extent even in our finite perspective in the very process of our cumulative addition of parts and our approximation to the relative whole that is their sum as well as to the absolute whole that is constituted also by that dimension. It is, as it were, represented and in further dimensions implied by the unity that allows us to add parts at all and to progressively approximate their sum and ascend towards the whole.

In one sense, it can also be said that no matter how limited and partial our perspective is, it is always “the whole” that we perceive. For there is nothing else to perceive. The parts never exist qua parts, they are always parts-of-the-whole, or they are the whole in various perceptual modifications. These modifications it is often important to analyse as such. Philosophy must always be both analysis and synthesis. But reality is always an experiential whole. The process of knowledge is merely one of clarifying what it is we perceive, that what we perceive is actually this whole. The increasing comprehensiveness of our “addition of parts” when properly conceived and pursued, with all of its consequences for our understanding, is one moment in this process.

But I cannot go deeper into these issues now. The important point here is just that Ward notes that the holistic understanding of the universe, even as developed in physics alone (although this development has general philosophical implications and supports certain philosophical positions), overturns materialism’s atomistic and mechanistic understanding.

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