Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Brian Eddy is a consulting geologist and geographical information systems (GIS) specialist in Ottawa, Canada. Brian has a MSc in Earth Sciences with specialization in GIS for decision-support using fuzzy logic, preceded by a BScH in geology, with a minor in astronomy and physics. His professional experience involves modelling earth system, ecosystem, and human-environment system dynamics.

Spectral Reflections

A Commentary on Discerning Holons

Brian Eddy

The concept of holons underlies Wilber's spectrum of theories and applications that attempt to depict the nature of the Kosmos in all four quadrants, and on all levels of matter, body, mind, and spirit. As Wilber points out in many areas, higher level holons are 'more significant' and lower level holons are 'more fundamental'. Along with this premise, I believe this discussion of holons, although not 'most significant' within the spectrum of integral topics, it is 'most fundamental' to any integral approach. Hence, the need to clarify holonic theory, definitions and practical applications.

Fred Kofman's paper "Holons, Heaps, and Artifacts" provides us the opportunity to examine some of the conceptual and practical viewpoints concerning the nature and definition of holons. Andrew Smith provided a wonderful response to this paper, raising further questions and comments, most of which I tend to agree. So I will try not to replicate Andrew's comments here, rather, I feel the need to raise some questions that I believe are perhaps fundamental to the very definition of 'holon', and the holonic nature of reality.

I must first give credit to Andrew for his use of the term 'spectrum' in reference to holons. As a general introduction to my commentary, I applaud Fred's efforts in his attempt to clarify the various 'types' of holons, and their implications in practical applications. However, I think his attempt to 'compartmentalize' different 'types' of holons is confusing the 'nature' of holons and our 'classification' of holons. Essentially, the difference lies in viewing reality either as a continuum, or a set of discrete entities, such as an aggregate of subject/objects that must conform to a pre-determined model.

My appreciation of the holonic concept by Wilber is realized from an appreciation of the multi-dimensional, or 'hyper-dimensional' reality for which this concept aims to represent. If we are to discuss whether or not something is or isn't a holon, or what type of holon something is or isn't, then we need to be aware of the fact that we are slicing and dicing reality on the basis of a limited set of properties which are visible to us through our limited means of observation – these being the eyes of flesh, mind and spirit.

There are several fronts on which I would raise some questions on what has been presented thus far. I do not attempt to resolve all of these questions here, rather to introduce another 'layer' to consider when applying holonic tenets in theoretical and applied frameworks. The three aspects I discuss include:

  • The First Holonic Tenet - A Slight (but profound?) Re-wording
  • Discerning Holonic and Holon - Process and Product
  • The Kosmos Continuum - Everything is 'holonic'
  • Implications for Application - Artifacts and Heaps, Individual vs. Social Holons.

The First Holonic Tenet - A Slight, (but profound?) Re-wording

Firstly, I believe we need to return to the wording and definitions that set the premise for Fred's discussion. The first tenet is the base tenet for all tenets that follow, and all other theories that transcend and include this premise. The first tenet is quoted by Fred as: "Reality as a whole is not composed of things or processes, but of holons", is perhaps a mis-quote of the actual tenet: "Reality is composed of holons". This first tenet, as stated, does not 'deny' things and processes as constituents of reality, but rather, places 'things and processes' on a holonic footing. I would propose rewording this tenet to say not "Reality is composed of holons", but:

"Reality is holonic, reality produces holons".

Discerning Holonic and Holon - Process and Product

The distinction I make between saying "Reality is holonic, Reality produces holons", versus, simply "Reality is made of holons", is to maintain distinction between process and product (things and processes). The first tenet does not 'deny' things and processes, as stated above, rather it places them on a holonic footing. Therefore, the term 'holonic' refers to the 'nature' of reality, which is comprised of 'instances' of things that we perceive to possess holonic properties. If the basic definition for 'holon' is 'whole/part' (whole/one), then it follows that, because reality is holonic, and reality produces holons, and 'everything' exists in the domain of reality, everything that exists is a holon, or, "is holonic". Equally important is the ever-moving Spirit in all things that bring holons into existence. This 'process' of the Kosmos can be said to be 'holonic', so as to describe the living nature of reality.

The current wording used in the first tenet treats reality as something comprised of 'objects' only (holons), and pays no regard to the dynamics and continuum in reality. If we limit the first tenet to only the 'products' we observe in reality, without acknowledging the holonic nature of reality that produces these products, then we are limited to 'objectifying' reality from the get-go, thereby forced into reductionistic schemes that contradict the premise of integral philosophy. More importantly, by acknowledging the holonic process in the Kosmos, we observe the 'continuum' in all things, rather than limiting our view to discrete objects. By limiting our observation to the discreteness of reality is to subject ourselves, or limit ourselves, to 'dualism', which thereby defies our ability to truly embrace the Kosmos and its Non-dual nature as it is.

Everything is Holonic, and Every 'Thing' is a Holon

From the first tenet and its use of the word 'Reality', it is understood that we are referring to 'everything' insofar as the word 'everything' attempts to encompass everything (every process), and every 'thing' (every object). Hence, Wilber's wonderful discussion and criticism of quantum physicists monopolization of the 'Theory of Everything' (See 'A Theory of Everything'). Then by this first premise, 'Reality is holonic, and reality produces holons", everything is holonic by nature, and every thing is a holon.

Ken and Fred argue that holons fall into two basic types: 1) Sentient, and 2) Non-Sentient, then further into 1a) Individual, 1b) Collective/Social, and 2a) Artifacts and 2b) heaps. Such a discrete approach to applying holonic theory in "practical application" is perfectly valid. Unfortunately, in doing so, one fails to accommodate the possibility for very different (subjective and inter-subjective) viewpoints and justifications as to why some things are placed in the 'sentient' bin and other things placed in the 'non-sentient' bin. To do so, one is limited to 'dualism', and fails to acknowledge and appreciate the non-dual nature of reality.

In application, the modeller is also tangled between placing a holon in 'either' the 'individual' or 'social' category. But this contradicts the basic definition of holon and holonism - that is dealing with the nature of 'whole/partness' in all things. How can a holon be an 'individual' holon and not a 'social' holon? It must be 'both' always already, no?

So the question is not whether something is or isn't a 'holon', rather, the questions should be:

  1. What are the whole/part properties of the thing (holon) ?
  2. What are the interior/exterior properties of the thing (holon) ?
  3. What 'level' in the AQAL framework does the holon occupy ?
  4. What relation does this holon have with other holons ? …And,
  5. What is the nature of the process(es) that brought this holon into existence ?

To say that holons have 'interiors' (consciousness) and 'non-holons' (artifacts/heaps) do not literally 'kills' much of our observe reality. How are we to perceive whether some 'thing' has consciousness or not ? Moreover, how are we, or who are we, to qualify / dis-qualify various modes of consciousness in all 'things'. To help clarify this point, lets look at one of the more fundamental holons available to us.


To say that rocks (obviously, one of my favourite subjects) are heaps, is to say that they do not contain consciousness and therefore are not 'sentient', nor are they 'holons'. However, rocks gave rise to the ocean and the atmosphere, which in turn gave rise to 'life' (sentience). Was sentience simply introduced at this stage of evolution? Or, is life just a higher form of sentience than rocks, water and air? To say that rocks, water and air are 'non-sentient' is to conclude that sentience (life) arose out of 'non-sentience'. My argument is that however rudimentary sentience may be in rocks, relative to say 'humans', all of nature possesses some form of sentience, but to different degrees (perhaps in the state/level of quantum forces, molecular tendencies, compound forces, prehension, etc…)

But herein lies the problem with the definition of artifacts and heaps, in contrast to sentient holons. To say that 'artifacts' are produced by holons, but have no internal, or inherent means of self-organization, suggests that only sentient holons are capable of producing artifacts. This is entirely incorrect, as I know of many proven examples in the Earth Science that demonstrate 'self-organization'! In fact, among the lowest of Turtles we see exhibitions of self-organization that perturbates all higher level holons.

Wilber has further suggested that in the case of 'AI' devices, there are 'hybrid things' that possess properties of both holons and artifacts, and if they are thrown in the corner at random, they become a social 'heap' of 'hybrids'. To say that rocks are artifacts or heaps, by whatever argument, is to deny our evolution from them, … to say that 'sentience' was 'introduced' at some stage in the evolutionary process and did not exist prior to this stage! Rather than this thinking, I think we must acknowledge that consciousness (in whatever form) is evolutionary within the Kosmos that has given rise to life on this planet. By the same argument, could we not say that 'life' on Earth (or anywhere in the Kosmos) could be considered an artifact of the 'ocean', which in turn is an artifact (along with the atmosphere) of rocks, which are an artifact of molecules and inorganic compounds, and so on. In other words, the argument can be turned both ways.

More dangerously though, we deny the existence of consciousness and 'interior' to all things prior to the formation of 'life' (or the body in the Great Nest of Being). Was 'interiority' only introduced at the point of the emergence of what we call 'life' on Earth ? Or, was it not always already there ?

At this point, I think we need to embrace the concept of 'spectrum' of consciousness to be applied to everything and every thing, and not just 'living artifacts' produced by the ocean. The difference being, of course, in the level and complexity of consciousness within all things along this holonic spectrum that comprises the Great Nest of Being.

To avoid this kind of confusion, I think we need to do two things: 1) Assign a ground holonic right to all things (a right to be a holon) and everything (a right to be holonic), and 2) to acknowledge some level of consciousness (interiority) to all things. In doing so, every thing and everything then has its rightful place on the AQAL map, and all things are then realigned within an integral framework. Which brings me to my next point regarding the separation of individual vs. social holons.

Individual vs. Social Holons

Ken and Fred both argue for the need to distinguish between individual and social holons. To use Fred's example, say a person (individual holon) is a 'member' of an organization (social holon) and 'not a part'. This is to say that social holons exhibit properties that are beyond the sum of the parts, or the influence of the interior consciousness of the parts, and therefore constitute a different type of holon than the individual member holons. I would argue that this is incorrect.

Some examples of social (human) holons such as companies, organizations, ball teams, etc., are in fact holons that 'are' the sum of the parts (members) of those organizations. Some ball teams are 'better' than others, because their members (parts) have more talent, and they play together as a team better than other teams that have less talent or team 'spirit' (pun intended). The same is true for companies, cities, and nations. If we remove, or change the members in some way, then the aggregate 'social' holon changes accordingly.

Example: Trade Brian Eddy for Mario Lemeiux on the Pittsburgh Penguins and tell me that the Penguins will be 'unaffected' by this! True, the 'organization' (Pittsburgh Penguins) will continue to exist, but is it the 'same holon'? Is it all in the name, or is it also in the 'properties' and 'integrity' of that holon?

To me, there can be no such 'thing' as a 'social holon' (exclusively), rather, by the first premise we should say that companies, ball teams, cities and nations are holonic, and they exhibit properties of partness/wholeness. What we regard as 'social' holons are in fact 'higher level' holons. This is not a patriarchal, or a condescending position or view, rather as Wilber points out in his argument of hierarchies, they simply exist unto themselves, no matter which way you look at it. One can say that rocks are the higher level holons relative to their part holons (minerals) and that human organizations (companies, nations, ball teams) are higher level holons relative to their parts (people).

Therefore, questions of oppression, suppression and mis-appropriation of individual and collective rights and responsibilities between these two levels of holonic organization (self and society) have more to do with the nature and function of holonic reality, and more to the point the 'holonic integrity' of the system and its levels of organization. Oppression by the supra-holon (company, nation) on a sub-holon (individual) reflects a 'pathology' of that holon (on its higher level), but does not suggest that it is a different 'type' of holon (individual vs. collective).

For example, we could pose the question: "Is China a 'social holon' ?" Is it 'social' because it is a nebulous aggregate of millions of individual holons ? No. What we would regard as 'China' is a nation-state that is defined in the context of its own supra-holon, the 'world of nation states'. In other words, we could remove all other nation-states on the globe, and we still might keep China's borders conceptually on the map, and keep its current form of government active, but, what would be the point ? China 'exists' only in the context of its own collective support system which is the 'global nation-state system'. In other words, like every other 'thing' (physical or abstract), it is a 'holon' and evolves 'holonically'.

Returning to the premise of Fred's arguments for the need to distinguish between individual and social holons is to avoid 'mis-use', abuse and oppression of individual holons by collective holons. But this is not a fundamental property of 'holons', rather it is a form of pathology. The state that oppresses the individual is not unlike the brain suppressing emotions within an individual human being (a pathology by whatever name).

What I think what we are referring to here is the 'integrity' of the holon as a function of its interior 'state' of development in the individual and collective dimensions of its whole/partness. These things also need to be contextualized in relation to the holonic capacity for agency and communion to sustain holonic integrity. In short, I think there are no such 'things' as 'individual' vs. 'social' holons, rather that all things (holons) and processes (holonic) possess individual and social dimensions which are separated 'vertically' within the many sub-layers in the great nest of being.


To summarize:

  1. "Reality is holonic, and reality produces holons" is to conclude that "all things are holons, and all processes are holonic".
  2. There are no such things as exclusive 'individual' and 'social' holons (in isolation of each other as suggested by Ken and Fed). Rather, everything, every thing, and every holon and holonic process exhibits properties of wholenss and partness, or individual and social dimensions of its ', or ground of being.
  3. Boundaries between 'sentient' and 'non-sentient' are indiscernible within the full spectrum of reality, otherwise, rocks could never give rise to 'life'. Rather, sentience/consciousness is exhibited at all levels in the chain of evolution, through energy, matter, body, mind and spirit, as a full spectrum that increases in depth and complexity, through a corresponding reducing span of space and time.

By combining these premises, I believe we can more appropriately find application in numerous subject areas. In doing so, I think it is of paramount importance to discern between our 'models' and the 'reality'. Many applications of holonism, such as Fred's application to organizational nature and behaviour, would be of more benefit if we first acknowledge at the ground level, the 'spectrumness', the 'continuousness', of the conceptual subject/object realm that we derive from our experience. In this sense, the boundary between 'sentient' (holon) vs. 'non-sentient' (artifacts/heaps) is dissolved (or, to put a Wilberian flavour on it- 'dis-solved'), rather to be replaced as end-members on the sentience (consciousness) spectrum.

In fact, because of our limited view of the upper and lower ('turtles'), we can only go so far as to claim a relative sentience to all things, where 'lower sentience' and 'higher sentience' more adequately represent the two end-members of the full spectrum of consciousness with corresponding levels of holonic embrace, insofar as we can 'see' reality through our eyes of flesh, mind and spirit.

Every holon and holonic process exhibits some 'state of holonic integrity'. This reference to 'state' and 'integrity' can more easily be aligned with our observations in the physical realm of thermodynamics which, of course, serves as the most fundamental building blocks in our physical knowledge of things (but not as inclusively as thermodynamicists like us to believe). Herein we find the 'energy spectrum', and everything above it inherits some aspect of a 'spectrum' that one must be careful in discerning where subjective, or inter-subject boundaries occur long this spectrum.


I completed this commentary while on a business trip to Toronto during February 2001. I remember the first time I visited Toronto in 1990, visiting the CN Tower looking down upon the many 50-story skyscrapers, and the city of lights that seemed to go on forever. I was approaching a 'Green vMeme' worldview at the time, and coming from smaller-town Eastern Canada, wondered "How in the hell did we ever come to creating such a monstrosity?". Along with this thought, were thoughts of what New York, London, Moscow, or Hong Kong must be like as cities. I was aghast.

But last night, as the plane flew over the city on its approach, I looked down upon the many free-way systems, at the many-coloured lights of these pathsways, and noticed the traffic flowing in patterns that resembled our own blood flowing through our veins. Sometimes our observations are all a matter of scale and viewpoint of observation. As opposed to 1990, last night the buildings were 'alive' in many ways, as are the people who moved among and within them. The 'zoning' patterns of the city were easily noticed as a set of regular grid-like freeway systems, that nested open commercial zone areas, and residential areas typified by curved crescent like street patterns. I sensed the difference in entropy in each of these zones - from the tension experienced by the people 'aiming to get somewhere' while on the freeways, to those 'getting the job done' in the commercial zones, to those who were probably 'relaxing by the fire' in the residential zones.

From this viewpoint, these systems are not mere 'artifacts', nor 'heaps', neither are they 'individual' or 'social', but 'all' in many respects. The shell exhibits sentience in every dimension, as a shell is to a turtle, or a web is to a spider, these 'heaps' and 'artifacts' are in fact, part and parcel of the experience of sentience in the Kosmos.

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