Container of Life

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What is Holistic Science and its relevance to today’s world?

[Modern] Science from the start wanted to see itself as the new container for the story ofmodernity. And this container could be seen in two ways. Either it could be the short term container of materialism, holding an increasingly fragmented basket of things, or it could be the long term container of wisdom, gleaned from the long path of learning, of breakdown and healing, on which we have come.

Holding our stories

What is the container of our life today? For some of us the container may be a trust in science and our progress in understanding and control of nature. For others the container may be belonging to a religious or spiritual tradition. For others the container may be working for the good of society. Yet all these containers no longer seem to hold what is true, valuable and precious to us.

Science seems to widen its areas of expertise and increase its mountains of data, without offering any more depth to us, in terms of how to live. Questions of science are decided by and for experts. Spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, address this lack of spirit and meaning, but there is no unity in a message that would globally reawaken trust. Even the earth now is seen as a complex system of interactions, such that we are on the point of tipping into some other climate state, maybe in the extreme case, one uninhabitable by ourselves.

It is clear from this picture, that what we are looking for, a Holistic Science, is something that can interpret the understanding of science, within a wider whole picture of who we are. The aim of Holistic Science is to add myth to explanation, and meaning to experience. We seek to discover the compass of the four ways of knowing, able to hold our seeking in the world.


Holistic Science cannot be considered something new. For every indigenous society and ancient civilisation up to Pythagoras and the Greeks, science was embedded in a story of the world. For the Greeks, mythos and logos were reflections of each other, the spiritual encounter with the unknown supported by the knowledge of the ways of the world. Science of harmony, ratio and proportion mirrored the nature of mythic reality, as told through the ancient stories. The container of life was this unity between what we felt and what we knew.

The change to this contentment with seeing the world as a reflection of our natures and our participation in its stories came with the philosophical tradition, begun by Plato and Aristotle. It became the norm to first question the logic of existence, as an abstract question, and then secondly to ask for our particular role and value within our conceptual, rather than lived, understanding. For instance the dialogues of Plato seek to locate the good values within the context of people arguing about different reasoning until the clear path was revealed.

A bright spark in assimilating this new emphasis on knowledge was provided in Islamic Spain under enlightened Islamic leadership in the 10th to 12th centuries. The container of knowledge was the inspiration to address God in a new way, through all possible means, philosophical, mathematical, poetic, religious - Jewish, Christian, Islamic all giving valid input to this one aim.The beauty of the buildings, poetry and scholarship that this era left behind gives testimony to the success of this endeavour of providing a rich container for life.

In the scientific revolution in Europe from the 16th century, a curious phenomenon acted itself out. With each great discovery of mathematics, calculus, electromagnetism, relativity and quantum theory, there seemed to be two quite distinct interpretations or stories that could be told.

One set of scientists, wanted to see science break down the old claims of divine purpose and put in its place a world that was reduced, drilled through and penetrated to the very bedrock of ultimate understanding. But alongside there was another more holistic approach, that wanted to situate the discovery and the mathematics in a new guide for living. This perspective provided a whole story of origination, experience, and meaning, as a container to the process of life, through the mathematics.

This great vision of a truly Holistic Science, that which told the basic tale of our existence, was always present and developing, right up to Einstein, who,in 1915, combined the mathematics and the intuition in the most brilliant and gentle way, to turn our view of the universe inside out.

The real separation between stories came with the discovery of the atom in the 1920s. For materialists, the ultimate container of existence would be the knowledge of the atom. But when technology became available in the 1900’s to penetrate into the basic particle world, what they found was far from straightforward. The atom for instance was almost entirely empty space and yet had the strength to underpin all structure. In the 1920’s Bohr and his colleagues came up with the Copenhagen interpretation.

This suggested that we could no longer expect to see reality as it was directly. Instead we had to see reality through a mirror. The mirror that Bohr erected was between possibility and measurement. Provided we looked through this particular mirror we could understand how emptiness of the atom, seen from one side, was actually unmatched strength, when seen in its reflection of measured reality.

Einstein never accepted this mirror reality of Bohr. It separated the container of science - the mathematical and intellectual reasoning in which was described the working of this mirror, from the actual experience of life.

Pauli, a colleague of Bohr, after a series of emotional traumas, had a nervous breakdown at the University of Zurich where he was working on quantum theory. He went to see Jung who lived in the same town. Under Jung’s guidance, from 1934, Pauli began having dreams of the renaissance of spiritual value through the terms and concepts of atomic science. His first such dream was of a world clock, a beautiful golden disk, supported by monks, portraying the harmony of the world. He felt he was seeing a mythical renewal being born in the very ashes of the separation science had brought.

Pauli was the first modern Holistic Scientist! Further after the War, where the splitting of the atom made its destructive contribution, David Bohm continued to question the mirror analogy Bohr had introduced. One of the people working with Bohm was Henri Bortoft. Bortoft realised that you could not understand wholeness separate from the experience of life. Bortoft went into the study of Goethe and phenomenology that became the foundation of Holistic Science.

As I say in my book, Time, Light and the Dice of creation, ‘Bortoft’s understanding of wholeness came from the attempt after the war to have a new understanding of what quantum theory was about: to get beyond the point of destruction. It was Pauli’s vision of the world clock. Is there, underlying the phenomena of quantum theory, a totally new understanding? Can the mathematics of the atom be one instance of a broader dynamic that has been explored elsewhere in terms of philosophy, language, and meaning? Can the physics allow us to see deeper into a truism about life itself, to discover who we are in a new light? And in order to let wholeness rediscover itself, re-imagine itself, we have to come out from the shadows [of an objective explanation], wherein Bohr’s interpretation was concealed, to reveal through our experience, the meaning of who we are. We have to examine what is wholeness? what is life? all over again.

Bortoft breaks with a science of concealment, that threshold where abstraction encloses existence within a cave of darkness, in which you can hide whatever you want. Bortoft’s approach is to discover the process that gets to the light of understanding, the revelation of a dynamic process of whole/ part behind nature. He understands wholeness, to arrive at the underlying process, to meet the world in its own terms.

Quantum theory looks at that shore where the world disappears and attention brings structure into being. Bortoft looks at the other shore, seeing wholeness can participate in the journey and show something of essence. So, it is like having two different shores that we are looking at: one, this dark shore of fixed existence, and the other, this living understanding of seeing the coming-into-being of something in its essential form. This is what our inquiry [Holistic Science] is all about, this journey from this incredibly dark and hidden place the world got into, into this very light, and very bright, and very living revelation of our true nature.’ (Franses, 2015)

Completing the cycle

The container that Holistic Science offers, especially in the MSc of Holistic Science at Schumacher College, begun by Brian Goodwin that I now teach with Stephan Harding, is to offer a perspective of meaning in the journey of science. Science has taken us in an exploration of the world of separation. But this journey into separation, gives us a vision of completing the cycle of knowing wholeness anew. The course is thus aimed at holding the individual journeys of transformation of the students within this wider context of the struggle of science, between reductionism and wholeness.

Holistic Science is novel, because it does not start from the separation of science and mythology and try to sew these back together. The container of our journeys becomes a much longer and vaster process than just our own experience. The container of our lives, is not just now where everything is fragmented in consumerism and narrow specialisation, but is that whole journey that arrives at the shore of the appreciation of wholeness in where and who we are.

[Modern] Science from the start wanted to see itself as the new container for the story of modernity. And this container could be seen in two ways. Either it could be the short term container of materialism, holding an increasingly fragmented basket of things, or it could be the long term container of wisdom, gleaned from the long path of learning, of breakdown and healing, on which we have come.