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From Control to Participation Via a Science of Qualities

An International Centre for Ecological Studies

From Control to Participation Via a Science of Qualities

Reprinted from ReVision 1999 – Professor Brian Goodwin


When Galileo started the great adventure of modern science with his systematic study of the motion of falling and projected bodies, cylinders rolling down inclined planes, and the movements of the moons of Jupiter, he was guided by a deep insight: natural phenomena can be described by mathematics. Of course, he wasn’t the first to explore this ordering principle of nature. Egyptian, Greek, and Arab natural philosophers had all contributed substantially to the realisation that processes involving the operation of levers, musical intervals and harmony, and particularly the movements of the heavenly bodies, are governed by number, ratio and geometry, so that there is a distinctly rational aspect to natural processes. What Galileo did was to define the methodology of science in terms of the study of number and measure. Those properties of the natural world that can be measured and expressed in terms of mathematical relationships define the domain of scientific enquiry. These measurable quantities such as mass, position, velocity, momentum and so on, are the primary qualities of phenomena according to Galileo’s definition. They originate from our experience of weight and force in natural processes. Other qualitative experiences that we may have such as the perfume and texture of a fruit or a flower, our experience of their color, or the joy that we may feel at the beauty of a landscape or a sunset, are outside the legitimate domain of scientific enquiry except insofar as we can extract quantitative data and derive mathematical descriptions of these phenomena. Modern science is thus defined as the systematic study of quantities and excludes ‘secondary’ qualities (experience of color, odour, texture, beauty of form, etc., which are often referred to as ‘qualia’).

As a strategy for exploring an aspect of reality – the quantifiable and the mathematizeable – the restriction of modern science to primary qualities is perfectly reasonable. It has also turned out to be remarkably successful. The diversity of aspects of the natural world that fall under the spell of number and mathematics is astonishing, ranging from light and magnetism and chemical reactions to the laws of biological inheritance. But who would have believed that mathematics could lead us well beyond what has become the ‘common sense’ behaviour of clocks and magnets and chemical processes to the strange but self-consistent world of quantum mechanics? Whereas we can readily grasp the causal relationships between the movement of a pendulum and the rotation of the hands of a clock via cogs and levers, and imagine molecules colliding with one another and reacting according to their energetic structure, common sense fails us utterly when we come to the quantum realm. Here causality functions differently and relationships are holistic rather than reducible to the behaviour of independent particles. Quantum particles obey principles of interaction which involve conservation of quantities such as spin and polarisation such that, no matter how far apart they may be, if they were once correlated in these properties, they remain forever so. They do not behave as independent entities whose properties can vary in arbitrary ways. The quantum realm is governed by principles of intimate entanglement and coordination between its components, giving rise to coherent order that extends over any distance.

Again, who would have anticipated that mathematics would give an insight into the curious logic of the weather – unpredictable but intelligible? The discovery of deterministic chaos in dynamical systems allows us to reconcile these two apparently contradictory aspects of certain categories of natural process, of which the weather is the most familiar instance. It used to be believed that forward prediction of weather patterns depended on how good is our model of the atmospheric processes involved and how detailed the data on actual weather patterns to feed into the model for prediction. However, it turns out that neither of these will allow accurate long-term predictions of the weather because of an intrinsic dynamical property of this type of natural process. The metaphor that describes this property is the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon and causing a typhoon in Indonesia. How could such a tiny cause have such an enormous consequence? The property in question is called sensitivity to initial conditions: very small initial differences of state in the atmosphere (the butterfly flapping its wings compared with no butterfly) lead to highly divergent conditions of the weather, such as no typhoon or a full-blown one. As far as weather forecasting is concerned, this means that any error in specifying initial conditions for weather calculations, or rounding errors that inevitably accompany computation, will grow exponentially. Errors then rapidly overwhelm the calculation and computed states diverge from real states so that prediction fails. This is the property of natural processes governed by deterministic chaos (Gleick, 1987).

It appears that this, or closely related dynamical properties, may govern a great variety of processes that we intuitively regard as complex. The physiological activities of our bodies and brains, ecological and evolutionary processes, and economies all seem to be characterised by mixtures of order and chaos such that precise prediction is impossible. Scientific knowledge, originally seen to make possible the prediction and manipulation of nature, appears now to be pointing us towards a new relationship with the natural world based on sensitive observation and participation, rather than control. This requires the cultivation of a new type of science, though its roots are already present in the old.

Beyond Mechanism and Reductionism

Conventional science is often described as mechanistic in its descriptions of natural processes. The activity of a machine can be effectively described in terms of the forces acting between separate parts which are coupled to one another in specific ways, to achieve a particular function. The pendulum of a clock is connected via cogs and levers to the hands of the clock which rotate at fixed speed and measure the passage of time according to our conventions for dividing the day into hours and minutes. Here the activity of the integrated whole can be described in terms of the causal connections between its constituent parts, each of which has properties that are themselves independent of the whole. This type of mechanical explanation is often extended to processes such as molecular reactions, in which molecules with particular properties interact with one another to produce other types of molecule. The assumption is that understanding the properties of the reacting molecules is sufficient to provide an explanation of the reaction and the molecules which are produced from it. However, an example shows the limitations of these assumptions. The properties of hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) are very well understood as elements, both in terms of their atomic structure and as gases. However, no-one has ever succeeded in predicting from these the properties that arise from their interaction to produce water (H2O). Two gases react together to produce a liquid that has remarkable properties such as its capacity to dissolve large quantities of salts, sugars and other substances, its very high capacity to store heat, the patterns it makes such as waves, vortices and turbulent flow, and the fact that it expands rather than contracts when it freezes. Faced with these phenomena, scientists study both the properties of water and of its constituents, and construct theories of their states that are consistent with both levels, the parts and the whole.

In general it is recognised that it is not possible to reduce the properties of a whole to those of the interacting parts, as in a machine, where the behaviour of the whole can be logically and completely deduced or predicted from the properties of the parts and the way they interact. In cases like water, the whole has what are referred to as emergent properties (e.g., large heat capacity) that arise by means that are not fully understand, but which can be described in mathematical terms that capture an essential quality of the emergent process (cf Anderson, 1988).

The study of emergent properties has become a defining characteristic of a recently-emerged area of scientific enquiry called the sciences of complexity. Here the focus is to attempt to describe mathematically and/or in terms of computer simulations how complex systems, made up of many different types of interacting component, can give rise to properties that are unexpected from the properties of its constituent parts. These complex systems can be physical, chemical, biological or social (including economies) (Kauffman, 1995). Striking examples come from the collective behaviour of social insects – bees, wasps, termites, and ants. Colonies of these insects perform remarkable feats of organisation and coordinated action that go so far beyond the behaviour of the individuals that one wonders at the origin of the emergent properties, which are often described in terms of a collective intelligence of the whole. Let me give a simple example that illustrates the general problem.

There are species of ant that typically live in small colonies of 40-80 individuals, with a single queen. They establish their colonies in crevices in rocks or in hollow acorns where the workers tend the queen and look after the brood within a chamber. They will also set up a colony between small sheets of plastic, simulating a rock crevice, within a plastic container in which food and water is provided – a convenient way to study them in the laboratory. It was observed that individual ants in isolation have a very irregular pattern of behaviour: they become active, moving about for a period of time, and then become inactive, with no evidence of any order Cole, 1991). The behaviour of individuals has in fact been characterised as chaotic, in the technical sense of deterministic chaos. Thus it is impossible to predict when an inactive individual will become active, or how long it will remain active.

However, if you look at the behaviour of ants within the brood chamber, where they are feeding and cleaning the queen and the embryos developing from the eggs she has layed, a very different picture emerges. Now the behaviour is highly ordered: there is a clear rhythm of activity and inactivity, ants becoming active, carrying out their duties, and falling inactive again with a period of about half an hour for the full cycle (Franks et el, 1991). How is it that rhythmic collective behaviour of the whole colony emerges from chaotic individuals? Clearly in this example a knowledge of the behaviour of the constituent individuals of the colony is not sufficient to explain the emergent rhythmic property of the whole.

The question then arises whether it is possible to reproduce these observations with a mathematical/computer model. This has also been achieved: chaotic ‘ants’ can indeed give rise to rhythmic collective activity patterns (Miramontes, O., Sole, R.V., and Goodwin, B.C., 1993). The model consists of virtual ants that have chaotic patterns of individual behaviour. When they are active, these virtual ants move about in random directions on a grid, simulating the behaviour of real ones. If an active ‘ant’ arrives on a square adjacent to an inactive ‘ant’, the latter is stimulated to become active. This is a basic pattern of interaction that is observed with real ants, and in the model it is represented by a mathematical function describing how inactive ants are activated by active neighbours. This very simple model manages to capture the essential features of real ant behaviour. In both real and virtual cases, as the number of ants within a defined territory increases (i.e., the density increases), chaotic patterns of activity transform into rhythmic patterns of behaviour: order emerges from chaotic individuals as a result of the activation of quiescent individuals by active neighbours.

Does such a model allow us to say that the behaviour of real ants has been understood or explained? In causal terms, no. This is because we cannot deduce logically that the stimulation of inactive ants by chaotically active ones will result in a rhythmic activity pattern over the colony as a whole. We can only say that a sufficient description of the emergent behaviour is provided by chaotic individuals that stimulate one another when they interact. But it could not have been predicted that the model would show this behaviour. So the emergent property has not been reduced causally to the level of individual behaviour plus interactions. There remains a gap in our causal understanding of the process. However, the model achieves a description of the phenomenon that is consistent both with lower level, individual ant behaviour, and with emergent colony behaviour. It is just like water with its distinctive properties emerging from the reaction of H2 and O2. And there are many other such examples that can be found in physics, chemistry, and biology.

This is all within the domain of conventional science. Thus it is evident that science is not mechanistic, natural processes being described in terms of mechanical interactions that provide full explanations of the phenomena observed. Nor is it reductionist in the sense of requiring that behaviour at one level be reduced to a lower level. Sometimes reduction is achieved, but in general it is not. Ther often remains a logical gap between one level, such as the behaviour of individual ants and their interactions, and the next level of order, rhythmic activity over the whole colony. This does not interfere with scientific understanding, which seeks consistency of description rather than a basic level of causal explanation. Furthermore quantum mechanics, which is sometimes regarded as the base line for scientific explanation, is itself holistic, as we have seen. So science is a complex collage that goes far beyond mechanistic and reductionist descriptions of nature. But so far Galileo’s definition of modern science as the systematic study of the measureable and mathematizeable aspects of the world appears to hold.

From Quantities to Qualities.

How do scientists make sense of the sometimes contradictory phenomena with which they are confronted? How is it possible to reconcile the observations that electrons or photons can behave as particles and as waves? How are we to understand the loss of weight of a body immersed in a liquid? Again, how can the strange properties of a molecule such as benzene be reconciled with its chemical formula? Solutions to these problems are not arrived at by logical deduction from basic principles, but by the creative human process that involves the intuition. Models are constructed which are guided by observation and by logical constraint, but the guiding principle is often a feeling that some description of the process which has particular features is essentially right. Insight may come in a flash, or it may arise gradually as modifications are explored around a basic description that feels correct. The role of the intuition in scientific discovery is virtually universally acknowledged. But there is no attempt to systematically cultivate the intuition as part of a scientist’s education. It is regarded as a gift, an accident of birth that endows some with more intuition than others. Furthermore, intuitive insight comes at unexpected moments – in the bath for the physicist Archmedes, when getting onto a tram car in Paris for the mathematician/physicist Poincare, or while looking into the fire after an excessive amount of drink one evening for the chemist Kekule. The history of science is filled with these anecdotes, and they are not disputed as testaments to the quality of experience that accompanies scientific insight.

Is this consistent with Galileo’s definition of science as the systematic study of the measurable and the mathematizeable? In one sense, yes. Galileo used only measureable relations to describe the motions of the bodies he could see around Jupiter. He plotted their apparently incoherent pattern of motion relative to one another, trying to make sense of their behaviour night after night. It was his intuition that suddenly grasped their consistency, leading to the conclusion that they are moons rotating about the planet. He was putting the parts of his observations together to get a coherent whole. Achieving such consistency is generally accompanied by a sense of the elegance and beauty of the natural world that is experienced as deep aesthetic pleasure. And this is regarded as something of a touchstone for the truth. However, such an experience is not sufficient to satisfy the rigours of scientific judgement. The insight has to be checked independently against further observations, and by different scientists. Only when consensus emerges that the model fits the observations is it accepted as a valid scientific description.

Notice that the initial insight that leads to a consistent description of a set of observations, putting them together into a coherent whole, involves both subjective experience and qualitative evaluation: elegance, simplicity, beauty, truth, are the most common descriptors. The resulting theory often has the property of parsimony: a minimal set of axioms is used to explain a diversity of observations. The simpler the theory, the closer to the truth is the assumption, implying that nature is herself parsimonious. The individual insight must then be subjected to scrutiny by the scientific community. The status of the insight as objective truth depends upon intersubjective consensus between practising scientists. If there is no consensus there is no truth. This is the democratic aspect of scientific discovery, which depends upon a community of individuals who practice a shared methodology of investigation. This methodology excludes secondary qualities from the data that requires interpretation. However, it does not exclude secondary qualities from the process and experience of scientific intuition that makes sense out of the data. Qualities are already an acknowledged accompaniment of scientific discovery, and are accorded a significant place in the evaluation of the correctness of the insight. The physicist Dirac, for example, was convinced of the correctness of his insight that positrons must exist, well before any experimental evidence was available, simply by the elegance of the mathematical relations that pointed to their necessary existence.

A Science of Qualities

There are problems we face today which seem to be beyond the capacity of science to find satisfactory solutions. Crises abound in issues connected with the environment – water and air quality, chemical and noise pollution, erosion of watersheds and destruction of fishing grounds; in agriculture and food quality; in health; and in community life, to name but a few. The new sciences of complexity suggest that all of these problems may arise in part because we are failing to grasp a basic property of the complex processes that are involved in maintaining healthy environments, healthy bodies, and healthy communities. These cannot be manipulated and controlled in the ways that we have learned from mechanical systems such as cars and computers, radios and television sets. Their complexity is such that we cannot predict the consequences of what appear to be scientifically reasonable actions. So we get destruction of the salmon spawning grounds as a result of even restricted areas of clear-cutting of timber on the West coast. Mad cow disease results from the application of reductionist principles to production of cattle feed: it is assumed that protein from cattle or sheep organs is equivalent to any other source of nutrient protein, since during digestion it is believed to be broken down into its constituent parts (amino acids). Unexpected toxins appear in food products from genetically engineered organisms. Commercial interests encourage the adoption of reductionist principles because they seem to promise control over complex systems. But watersheds, cows and crops function in terms of emergent, holistic properties such as health that we are only beginning to understand; and they require us to adopt a different pattern of relationships from the manipulative, exploitative style of interaction that which we have learned from our science of quantities.

Wholes have emergent properties that are expressed in terms of qualities as well as quantities. Health, for example, is an emergent property of living organisms that cannot be defined in terms of a set of quantities such as blood pressure, temperature, counts of different types of blood cell, etc. There is in fact no science of health that is taught to medical students and nurses, because there is no generally accepted theory of health as an emergent property of the whole human organism. Health is expressed in a variety of properties such a posture, quality of complexion, tone of skin and muscle, feeling good, alertness, and so on. Different traditions of therapy use different criteria of health, but all holistic practitioners speak of ways of reading the whole from examination of parts by assessment of quality as well as quantity. Traditional Chinese medicine uses a quantitative and qualitative method of pulse diagnosis; homeopaths carry out a detailed inquiry into the life style and history of the subject, paying attention to their qualitative assessments and feelings; and a good allopathic practitioner does likewise. Quality of pain (sharp, dull, diffuse, acute, etc), for which there is no measuring instrument, is a very important diagnostic tool for assessing the nature of the condition presented. Quality of experience can be used as an indicator of the real nature of a process; it is not simply an arbitrary, idosyncratic subjective state. The process of diagnosis and appropriate treatment are often descibed in all of these traditions as an art as well as a science. However, conventional scientists tend to balk at these diagnostic procedures and question their legitimacy as real science. But is there any intrinsic reason why there should not be a scientific methodology that addresses aspects of the world that are connected with qualities? Is there any reason why qualities should not be reliable indicators of ‘objective’ states?

Within the tradition of Western science there was a remarkable individual who saw his work as a contribution to the development of a science of qualities. This was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: poet, statesman, and scientist. His scientific work is best remembered within biology, for it was Goethe who introduced the term morphology as the systematic study of the forms of organisms. His work on plant form is particularly recognised for the insight that the visible parts of a flowering plant – leaves, sepals, petals, nectaries, stamens and carpels – are all transformations of one another. This insight is typical of Goethe’s dynamic approach to morphology, which he saw as essentially the result of the continuous transformation of the growing, developing organism from the seed to the adult form. He understood this process to be a coherent unfolding of the intrinsic dynamic order, the ‘inner necessity and truth’ that is revealed in the distinct morphology of a species: a lily or a delphinium or a rose. He described the leaf as the basic organ of the plant which undergoes sytematic transformation of shape as the plant grows and develops, ending with the dramatic transformations that produce the startling beauty of the organs of the flower. This unifying concept has been fully validated by recent genetic studies of the relationships between the flower organs: mutations have been discovered that bring about the transformations of the different organs one into the other, the ‘default’ or ground state being leaf. For example, there are plants with particular mutations that have leaves at the centre of the ‘flower’ where the carpels should be. It is necessary to be careful about the meaning of these genetic observations in order to avoid falling into the error of ascribing the transformations to the causal powers of genes themselves. It is not the genes that are the sufficient causes of petals or carpels. Genes act within an organised context, the developing organism, which has the potential to produce different types of organ. The action of particular genes directs this potential along certain paths that lead to one organ rather than another.

Influences other than genes can also have such effects, such as temperature shocks, which can divert normal development so that the resulting plant appears to have a genetic mutation though it is genetically normal. But the recent genetic studies demonstrate the correctness of Goethe’s deduction that plant morphology is to be understood as a set of parts united under mutual transformation; the plant is a dynamic unity.

This insight is characteristic of all Goethe’s scientific work. He grasped the unity of wholes as dynamic transformations, always stressing the generative organising power that underlies the manifestation of wholeness. The generative processes within the living organism, which he described as ‘the real Proteus’, necessarily produce diversity of form since context is continuously changing in the developing organism. As the plant develops, the growing tip finds itself in changing contexts, both internal and external. Sensitivity to context, the essence of living process, is reflected in the differing sizes and shapes of leaves as the plant grows and develops, and in the transformation to the flower organs that are a response to changing periods of illumination as days lengthen or shorten during the year.

Goethe did not restrict his work to biology. He also made a very significant contribution to physics, notably in his studies of light and colour. These have been very widely misunderstood as being in conflict with Newton’s theory of colour defined as different wavelengths of light. Goethe was certainly critical of Newton’s theory. However, it has become clear that we are dealing here with two very different approaches to the phenomenon of colour; they are distinct rather than in conflict (Bortoft, 1996). For Goethe was primarily interested in a phenomenological theory of colour that was holistic and accounted for the qualities of colour experience as well as being based upon a systematic set of experiments and observations.

Colour Experience

As in Galilean science, Goethe looked for experimental procedures that allowed the systematic examination of natural phenomena. But he did not make the assumption that only the quantifiable aspects of these phenomena are allowed as material for the construction of scientific theories. His procedure was to look for situations that revealed the generative process with its potential to produce a variety of expressions of its underlying nature. In relation to colour experience, Goethe discovered that a basic experiment allowing the systematic investigation of colour is examination of the spectrum produced by a prism held up to a horizontal light-dark boundary. Holding the prism with the point of the triangle up, examination of the colour spectrum generated from a boundary that is dark above and light below reveals the colours, from top down: violet, indigo, and blue – the blue range of the spectrum. If the prism is reversed, or the boundary is reversed so that light is above and dark below, then the colours that appear are yellow, orange and red – the complementary range of colours. But no green occurs in either experiment. If, however two black cards are placed on a white card so as to make a horizontal slit of white between the black, then the full colour spectrum from violet to red appears, with green in the middle when this is viewed through a prism with the triangle pointed upwards.

But what happens if two white cards are placed on a black card to produce a strip of black between the white surfaces? Now the colour series is reversed when viewed through a prism, starting with yellow at the top and ending with blue. The colour series with which we are familiar and see in the rainbow is red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet. The reversed spectrum is: yellow-orange-red-new colour-violet-indigo-blue. What is this new colour between red and violet, the complement of green? It has a quality that has been described a peach blossom – a light, glowing pink colour that emerges with unexpectedly distinct qualities, just as green between yellow and blue; not a mixture but an emergent property of light in these circumstances. Anyone can do these simple experiments with a prism and black and white cards (Proskauer, 1989). The result is a colour circle rather than a linear spectrum, the two ends of the normal Newtonian spectrum being joined by a new colour that does not appear in Newtonian experiments with light from a pin-hole viewed through a prism.

This is just the beginning of Goethe’s phenomenological approach to colour. The next step is to use the insights from these experiments to understand the coherence and consistency of colour phenomena in nature such as the blue of the sky and the reddening of the setting sun. But equally important is to make consistent sense of the feelings we experience from different colours – the emotional tone of blue as calming and contemplative, of red as arousing and passionate, of green as living and vibrant. These colour qualities are regularly and systematically used by therapists to elicit appropriate emotional responses from subjects as part of healing treatment. A question that then arises is whether there is some consistent relationship between the processes in nature that generate colour and our experience of their feeling quality; i.e., whether these experiences are the basis of reliable knowledge of the nature of the type of process involved in the phenomenon. If there is no such correlation then it is not clear why there should be consistent human physiological responses to colour, associated with emotional experiences of the type on which colour therapy depends. Connections between emotions and physiological states are now well established by studies on the links between feelings, states of awareness, and categories of molecule that are involved in connecting brain activity, hormonal states, and activity of the immune system, as in the research of Pert (1997) on what she calls ‘molecules of emotion’.

This demonstrates the principle that there are no phenomena without embodiment. However, it is necessary to recognise that experience cannot be reduced either to what is generally regarded as ‘out there’, the stimulus as the cause of the experience; or to the embodied condition of the experiencing subject. The experience arises from the whole process, which includes outer circumstance and its inner resonances. It is generally assumed that organisms have consistent relationships to their environments that reflect reality, so that consistent emotional responses to physical processes are unlikely to be arbitrary. This provides a conceptual foundation for exploring these relationships and taking qualitative experience seriously as an indicator of the nature of the process experienced.

Goethe expressed this belief in relation to colour by the following description: colour is an expression of the trials and tribulations of light. This sounds very strange to our ears because it implies that light itself has experiences that are expressed in different contexts by different colours. However, it can also be interpreted to mean that we tune in to real aspects of natural processes with our feelings just as we tune in to real aspects of natural processes when we carry out measurements. Goethe described the appearance of blue as a lightening of the dark, and red as a darkening of the light. The light of the sun is darkened by increasing depth of atmosphere through which its light travels as it sinks in the evening; the blue of the sky results from the effect of light from the sun that is scattered by the earth’s atmosphere, lightening the darkness of space. As astronauts rise out of the earth’s atmosphere, the sky darkens to blackness; the lightening effect of the atmosphere is lost and space is everywhere black except where light and dark interact to produce colour, as occurs when looking at the earth. It now looks blue, with white clouds; the darkness of the planet is lightened by the scattering of light in its atmosphere, while clouds reflect back the light of the sun, looking white.

We experience blue, a lightening of the dark, as uplifting, calming, peaceful – lightening the mood to feelings of serenity. Red is experienced as arousal to action and passion, our own fires being lit as external light darkens. This sounds more like poetry than science – subjective associations that are individual and idiosyncratic, hence unreliable as objective indicators of real physical processes. However, there is no intrinsic reason why our feelings should not carry real insight into the nature of the processes we experience in nature. Just as a sense of the elegance, beauty, and truth of a scientific insight are experienced as significant indicators of the real value of an idea that makes sense of diverse observations, joining them together in a consistent unity, so feelings associated with observations of phenomena can be significant indicators of their real natures, giving them meaning. However, in the same way that creative insight has to be checked independently by other practising scientists for its consistency with known data, and tested in various ways, so feelings about phenomena need to be examined for their consistency within a community of individuals practising procedures of research appropriate to this type of qualitative investigation. Such a community would be exploring the methodology, applicability, and reliability of a science of qualities, as the community of Galilean scientists explores the science of quantities.

Dependent Co-Arising

As one might expect, such explorations have been and are going on in a variety of traditions that do not accept the restrictions of Galilean science. I have mentioned therapeutic traditions of healing that work systematically with qualities of experience in assessing the health of the individual and in deciding upon therapeutic treatment. There are traditions of education such as Waldorf and Montessori Schools that cultivate a holistic approach to learning, involving development of the intuition through the arts and inclusion of aesthetic experience as an important component of discovery in scientific investigation. Outside Western culture, there are many different traditions that include qualities of experience as important aspects of human understanding of nature. Of particular value in clarifying the nature of human insight into natural process is the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising of phenomena. In this view, phenomena arise from interactions between different aspects of a single reality in which relationships are primary and nothing exists in independence. Thus our experiences arise out of encounters between the process in which we are engaged as living beings and the processes of other beings. These are distinct but not separate, being dependent in a manner similar to quantum entanglement. This has implications regarding causality, which ceases to be linear and becomes cyclic. Although in certain circumstances it is possible to separate cause and effect, as in the mechanical causality of the billiard ball paradigm in which the cause of movement of one ball is seen as collision with another, in general such separation is not possible. The process in which an organism is engaged, whether it be development from an egg or looking for its dinner, is not the result of a separable cause or set of causes, however much mechanical thinking tries to force it into this mould. An organism is engaged in a process that is the cause and effect of itself (Brady, 1986), in which a diversity of cyclic loops fold back in a complex dynamic which includes the environment (Goodwin, 1996; Webster and Goodwin, 1997). Another way of saying this is that the organism is a self-organising system that maintains its distinctive type of emergent order through its own activities (Kauffman, 1995). It is also dependent upon an external environment to which it is adapted, or which it knows. The action of the organism creates itself and its known environmental context (Maturana and Varela, 1986) in ways that are not arbitrary but conform to intelligible principles, as in quantum mechanics and emergent phenomena arising in complex systems. The organism and its known world co-create one another in accordance with consistent rules. A science of qualities has the objective of exploring and expressing these principles of continuous creativity in natural processes.

At Schumacher College these issues are explored and taught within the context of learning for sustainable living. The College runs as a community in which the experiential aspect of learning is embodied in everyday living and sharing, while short courses address the intellectual, political, and practical issues of changing paradigms and life-styles appropriate to our new circumstances. The college’s Masters in Holistic Science includes examination of the questions raised in this paper, and the development of methodologies necessary for a science of qualities. This has grown out of the perception that Western science has traveled an interesting path and is poised for a new adventure. The constraints of Galilean science, useful and productive in developing a systematic methodology for exploring the quantitative world of measure and ratio, are now imposing boundaries that arise from unnecessary limiting assumptions. These boundaries are becoming painfully evident in our inability to respond appropriately to the problems that appear to be overwhelming us, all connected with quality of life: health, food, the environment, community in all its different aspects, to name but a few of the more pressing areas of difficulty. The old principles of knowledge for the control and manipulation of nature are failing us in relation to these complex systems with unpredictable emergent properties, which are nevertheless intelligible and self-consistent. The sciences of complexity suggest why we cannot control the processes that underlie the health of organisms, ecosystems, organisations and communities. They are governed by subtle principles in which causality is not linear but cyclic, cause and effect are not separable and therefore manipulable. These systems are the causes and effects of themselves, involving ever-increasing loops of mutual dependence.

And there is dependent co-arising between human action and the context within which it is entangled. One might conclude from this that we cannot engage in directed action to resolve our difficluties and must adopt a position of laisser-faire in this complex, uncontrollable world. However, there is an alternative that is suggested by complexity studies and a science of qualities together. Participation.

Now that we have learned just how subtle nature is in its principles of creative emergence, a reasonable strategy is to learn to be equally subtle in our engagement with natural process. This implies that we cultivate not just our analytical intellects in understanding the intelligible aspects of nature; but that we cultivate also our intuitions as the vehicles of understanding and participating in the emergent creativity of natural processes, which include our own creativity. Cultivating the intuition means deliberately practising methods of investigation that pay attention to the feelings and images that arise in the course of systematic encounters with natural processes, leading to an experience of wholes and their qualities. The whole may be an organism whose distinctive properties one seeks to understand so as to relate to appropriately; a consistent diagnosis that emerges from a set of symptoms, from whose qualities arises insight into appropriate treament; it may be a landscape whose qualities are consistent with particular uses and not others; and so on. This practise requires both keen observation and use of methods akin to meditation, emptying the mind of preconceptions so that the intuition can work freely with sensory experiences and organise them into meaningful wholes. It is necessary to allow the spell of the sensuous to work its magic on the imagination, leading to a deep understanding of the nature of that which is being encountered (Abram, 1996). From this encounter arises a sense of the sacredness of the creative process that joins all things together in a never-ending dance of co-dependent arising, in which we participate. Appropriate participation is then the goal.

Participation has two aspects. One is the sharing of experiences and insights within a group engaged in the collective enquiry. There is an extensive literature that describes the procedures and outcomes of such cooperative enquiry or participatory action research in different contexts (Reason, 1989). These procedures share with scientific investigation the use of intersubjective consensus as a means of distinguishing those aspects of experience and insight that are common to the group from those that are idiosyncratic to individuals. The idiosyncratic or the particular is important in relation to the personal narrative of the individual. That which is common to the group (however large or small it may be) can be taken as a universal that reveals a shared aspect of the encounter with real process in which the group participated. This is a similar process to that whereby scientists seek to describe and make sense of, say, an emergent property of a complex system, but now there is no constraint on what is allowed as legitimate experience so that secondary qualities are included as well as primary.

The other aspect of participation is in the use of the insights gained from the enquiry. Understanding the natures of different species of organism, for instance, carries with it responsibility not to violate those natures in our interactions with them. Reductionist biological science may encourage the view that organisms are essentially gene machines that have passed the evolutionary survival test, arbitrary collections of characters that serve the needs of species to live and reproduce in certain habitats (Dawkins, 1986). We humans can now define those habitats, such as the conditions under which domestic animals live. Also, our knowledge allows us to manipulate species hormonally or genetically so as to conform to our needs. Therefore we can select for genes in turkeys that produce excessive amounts of breast meat, despite the fact that this may prevent them from normal reproductive behaviour, which we can take into our own hands. Or we can manipulate cows with growth hormone to produce more milk, though they then become unhealthy, prone to mastitis and in need of continuous antibiotic treatment which results in spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, not to mention the growth hormones present in the milk (insulin-like growth factor) that are carcinogenic for humans.

These are very unwise policies, on two counts: unhealthy animals produce unhealthy food; and an exploitative, manipulative attitude to nature makes us sick and alienated from our ecological roots, just as an exploitative, manipulative attitude to other people makes us sick in our human relationships. The new biology of complexity and emergent properties shows just how limited and aberrant is a reductionist view of life, and how inappropriate is a relationship to nature based on control and manipulation. Yet it is the old, reductionist biology that drives new biotechnology, a dangerous combination of bad science and big business that is threatening to the health of organisms and ecosystems alike (Ho, 1997; Wills, 1998). This food industry needs stringent safety regulations, as in the pharmaceutical industry, but based on the precautionary principle because rogue genes released into ecosystems cannot be recalled as can dangerous drugs.

Transgenic species may have a role to play in sustainable agriculture. But a participatory approach to the life support systems of the planet means that we must become much more sensitive and responsive to the subtle creativity of natural processes so that we do not destroy them through our actions. Developing a science of qualities will help to cultivate this sensitivity while preserving the best aspects of science as a cooperative, open, democratic approach to understanding and living within nature.


I am very indebted to friends old and new for the help I have received in finding ways of expressing the thoughts and feelings with which I have struggled in this essay. I am particularly grateful for conversations with Sarah Gilliat and Francis Harwood, who unblocked me at crucial moments in the composition, and to Jordi Pigem and Jennifer Wimborne for help in clarifying some crucial concepts, though they are in no way responsible for obvious limitations that I hope to overcome in the future.

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New York: Viking. Goodwin, B.C. (1996). How the Leopard Changed Its Spots. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Ho, M-W (1997). Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?
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New York: Oxford University Press. Pert, C. (1998). Molecules of Emotion.
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Maturana, H., and Varela, F. (1986). The Tree of Knowledge.
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Webster, G.C. and Goodwin, B.C. (1997) Form and Transformation. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.
Wills, P.R. (1998). Disrupting evolution: biotechnology’s real result. Allen and Unwin.

Brian Goodwin is a course tutor on the MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. He is author of How The Leopard Changed Its Spots (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994), and coauthor with Gerry Webster of Form and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles in Biology (Cambridge, 1997), and co-author with Richard Solé of Signs of Life: How Complexity pervades Biology (Basic Books, 2002).

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