E Unum Pluribus

Nature works in accord with the principle of holism, in which it is understood that all finite phenomena arise from and within an original whole or unity. Nature is not “made of parts” like a car on an assembly line. Parts are our descriptions that we give to various functions of Nature as we study it from within. Understanding the whole through the functions of its parts is the principle of reductionism, and that is how we are taught to think.

But where would these external inputs come from to become components of Nature? Where would the outputs go other than remain within this circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere?

Nature is an inside with no outside. Our methods of observation and selective attention create the illusion of boundaries, but in order for Nature to have the meaning that naturalism gives it, we must also recognize its boundlessness. We must see it as the One from which many have come as opposed to an assembled collection of many.

Think of all the ways that the observable universe has changed since the first moment of time…you can’t really do it, can you? That’s because there was no first moment. There was only a first moment of the segment you selected for your thoughts. You can always pan back further and bring more of Nature into your attention. It is impossible to encompass all of Nature within our selective attention, and this is why we can say with logical confidence that Nature is an holistic concept that defies reductionist analysis.

That doesn’t make reductionism wrong, just limited. Reductionist thought has great difficulty grasping holistic concepts, and sometimes vice versa. In reality, there’s no actual quarrel between them. In proper balance, they work like the “zoom in-pan back” toolbar on a digital map. The capacity for reductionist thought is the indispensable key to scientific inquiry, and this is only a problem when not kept in balance by an equal capacity for holism.

When we use reductionism exclusively, we tend to view whole systems greater than our level of perception as aggregates. No one has difficulty understanding that a human being is more than an aggregate of trillions of cells, and few people would be confused into thinking of our bodies as an assembly of parts. But (to utilize the popular expression) it is harder to see that a forest is not merely an aggregation of trees…and so forth through innumerable layers of holons* we can identify, right up to the nameless, unidentifiable suchness we call the Universe or Nature. And if we critique that, we must also stand guard against ignoring all the trees for our love of the forest, against letting our holism turn successively smaller holons into featureless uniform mush. 

If reductionism and holism are to be of any use, they must show us that the cosmos and subatomic space are perfect analogies of each other, that the infinitely small is the infinitely large, and thus we can move fluidly between these non-dual poles without contradiction. It must involve combining the skills of the scientist and the mystic, in other words, not pitting them against each other. But the unum has to come before the pluribus, as it does naturally, or else we are bound to a subnatural viewpoint and all the problems it creates.

*A holon is an observable and finite existential unit that we recognize as both a whole and as part of a greater whole.

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