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Why the World Needs Holistic Science by Stephan Harding

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Modern science has given us huge benefits – just think of the astonishing medical advances of recent times and also of the deeply inspiring knowledge that science has given us about the evolution of life and indeed of the universe itself.   But just like everything else, science also evolves, and is now in need of a new evolutionary push forward into a much wider approach that can help us better understand and solve the huge global crises we now face.

Science as we know it came to prominence in the 16th and 17th centuries at a time when the 30 year’s war (1618-1648) – a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics - had ravaged much of Central Europe.  Plagues and famines added to the sense that nature was dangerous, unpredictable and oppressive.  Given those circumstances, it is not surprising that some of the great minds of the day wanted to find a way of knowing and relating to the world (both human and other than human) that would bridge the gap between the two spheres of Christendom whilst also providing predictability, power and control over nature. These great thinkers (Galileo, Descartes and Newton, to name just a few) developed a way of knowing which we now know as ‘science’ based on the view that nature is a vast lifeless machine which can in principle be predicted and controlled by means of carefully designed experiments and mathematical modelling of any aspect of the world machine reduced to its component parts.

This mechanistic model of nature was appropriate for those times and worked extremely well until the early 20th century when major advances in physics (in quantum and relativity theories) revealed huge flaws in the model. Furthermore, by the mid-20th century the mechanistic view of nature had affected (perhaps better to say ‘infected’) every sphere of life, including economics, education and agriculture with its emphasis on pure quantities in service of human exploitation and dominance over nature, thereby contributing to our current ‘triple crisis’ of climate change, species extinction and social disruption.

We are now in the situation of facing a 21st century global crisis of massive proportions with a mostly outdated 17th century scientific understanding of nature which is no longer fit for purpose and which has now become immensely limiting and even dangerous. So how can science evolve so as to be made fit for our times according to those of us teaching and learning on the MSc in Holistic Science here at Schumacher College

Strangely enough, the answer seems to involve the integration of an ancient pre-scientific idea with advances in leading edge mainstream sciences such as chaos and complexity theories and James Lovelock’s Gaia theory. 

The ancient idea is that nature is best understood as a great living being –as a cosmic organism – as a great soul or psyche - rather than as a dead cosmic machine.  Holistic science helps us to realise that like any living being (including the human being), nature has qualities that cannot be fully appreciated using classical quantitative scientific approaches.  

When we integrate an awareness of qualities and quantities we develop an expanded science which not only makes us clever, but which also make us wise.

The qualities in nature, which are largely ignored and rejected in mainstream science with its over-emphasis on reason, we perceive aesthetically, poetically and intuitively when we develop the ability appreciate the wholesome communicative power of the colours, shapes, sounds and indeed the pure existential ‘feel’ of the natural world as it presents itself to us directly to our senses before thinking steps in to generate theories about how it functions and has come into being.  The qualities bring us into a place of a deep, humble respect for the otherness and intrinsic value of nature, helping us to restrain our impulse to dominate and control, to be the ‘top’ species on this planet.

Our ability to perceive qualities needs to be cultivated just as much as our rational quantitative skills if we are to develop a science fit for the 21st century. On the MSc in holistic science we draw on the methods developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) for cultivating our perceptions of qualities through our sensing and intuition. We practice with plants, colours, stones, with the very soil itself, for as Goethe once said, the most difficult thing is to be able to deeply see what is most near at hand.

When we integrate an awareness of qualities and quantities we develop an expanded science which not only makes us clever, but which also make us wise.  We use the mechanistic-quantitative approach as a tool for exploring and solving certain problems when it is appropriate to do so, but always remembering that our appreciation of qualities gives us a truer image of nature.  In this expanded, holistic science we are no longer the masters and controllers of nature, but rather deeply respectful, humble participants in the creative evolution of our universe.


See the MSc Holistic Science Programme at Schumacher College
Nature is our teacher in this transformational degree from the pioneers of holistic science. Immerse yourself in systems, complexity and chaos theory, eco-psychology and the science of qualities. Look beyond the limits of traditional science to solve the ecological and social problems of today - recommences September 2018. Learn More...