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Why need a more holistic approach to science by Stephan Harding.

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Mainstream science has made us extremely clever but not at all wise. It has provided us with huge benefits but has also unwittingly contributed to the immense global ecological and social crisis we now face.

As the crisis deepens we realise more and more that we need a science fit for the 21st century and beyond – a holistic science which expands mainstream science to give us wisdom as well as knowledge.

This more comprehensive science, pioneered here at Schumacher College over the last twenty years, concerns itself with the rigorous and integrated deployment of the full capacities of the human psyche in order to develop a deeply participative relationship with nature.

Mainstream science ignores qualities such as the beauty of a landscape or our sense of the vitality and health of an ecosystem because there appears to be no way to measure these aspects of the world.

In this respect holistic science differs from mainstream science which believes that we can gain reliable knowledge of the world only through analytical mathematical reasoning in order achieve complete dominance and control of nature by gazing back upon ‘it’ as disembodied ‘objective’ purely rational observers.

In essence, the great scientists who developed mainstream science in the 16th and 17th centuries focussed only on quantities and saw the universe and indeed any phenomenon whatsoever as a nothing more than machines which could only be fully understood by reducing them down to their component building blocks.

Quantification, mechanism, and reduction: one could say that these have been the three cornerstones of mainstream science during the past four centuries or so.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach; it’s just that by discounting other ways of knowing that come to us through our intuition, sensing and valuing they have given us a dangerously distorted, one-eyed view of the world.

In particular, mainstream science ignores qualities such as the beauty of a landscape or our sense of the vitality and health of an ecosystem because there appears to be no way to measure these aspects of the world. As a result, nature has been seen as nothing more than a storehouse of resources to be plundered without let or hindrance entirely for human benefit.

In holistic science we develop rigorous methodologies for including these forgotten aspects of the psyche to heal both ourselves and the world.  Firstly, we encounter the living qualities of any phenomenon through the careful cultivation of our direct sensory perceptions together with our intuitive capacity for spontaneously apprehending the intrinsic wholeness and deep inner meaning that lies hidden at the heart of things.

This is the practice of Goethe’s science, which brings with it a profound sense of the value of whatever being we are studying together with a deep concern for its welfare.  Then we use our rational faculties to explore the phenomenon as a complex system. We might build mathematical models of the relationships amongst the components of the system in order explore the emergent properties and behaviours that often arise unexpectedly and unpredictably from these interactions, thereby encountering the limitations of rational knowledge itself.

In these ways we embark on a transformative journey towards wholeness by cultivating our intuition, sensing, valuing and thinking in the practice of science as an alchemical journey, as a refinement of the soul.  In the process we become able to skilfully apply these four ways of knowing in any given situation.

For example, in some cases it might be necessary to temporarily adopt a mechanistic style of thinking to solve a problem, or to use the reductionist approach to identify the parts of a system, or even to sideline the qualitative aspect of a phenomenon altogether.  A holistic scientist will use these more rational approaches with the awareness that they are merely tools to be taken up and set down as is appropriate, for ultimately we discover that it is our intuitive perceptions (often supported or even triggered by mathematical reasoning) that provide the most rewarding and profoundly healing insights into the wholeness of nature.

Time is quickly running out for our soulless, nature-destroying ‘postmodern’ culture. We desperately need an expanded, holistic style of science to inspire a deep sense of the wholeness and sacredness of nature in people all over the planet. Otherwise we will finally be consumed by disastrous planetary changes of our own making. 

Dr Stephan Harding is a senior lecturer at Schumacher College, specialising in Goethean Science, and also an ecolgist for the Dartington Estatate. One of the founding members of the College has taught alongside many of the world’s leading ecological thinkers and activists, including Arne Naess, Fritjof Capra, Vandana Shiva, David Abram, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis.