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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).



The Significance of a Proper Understanding
of the Individual-Social Relationship

Andy Smith

We can define societies, at every level of existence, as social organizations of highly similar holons that are relatively strong, stable and long-lasting.

This post is in response to “bmj”, who read one of my articles critiquing Wilber, An IMP Runs Amok, and offered some criticisms regarding the treatment of individuals vs. societies. I think “bmj”'s comments apply more to Wilber's AQAL scheme than to my single-scale model of holarchy, but the distinction between the two models was not emphasized, and in any case, the question of the relationship of individuals to societies—which is the heart of “bmj”'s critique—is a key one distinguishing my model from Wilber's. I think “bmj” has made some important points about this relationship which deserve further discussion, so I'm going to respond briefly to each of his six main points. Then I will go into somewhat more detail in regard to “bmj”'s final assertion, that the holarchy model provides no “re-orienting insight”.

“bmj” begins with this:

the individual-social distinction (both the social "aspect" and social holon concept) has some issues once we start to look at actual "object-behaviors" in nature, including their structure, their dynamics, and their "socializing".

Even in quick survey I present below, there appears to be some basic logical and category issues. Please forgive any gross or subtle sloppiness or errors.

1. The 'multiple social environments' problem. There are multiple (if not effectively innumerable) social contexts for any given individual holon, for example: a water molecule in a storm; a water molecule in a gaseous nebula; a water molecule in the stomach of an animal. The behavior of a water molecule in each context is unique and can't be reduced to a single "social aspect" due to varying exogenous environmental impacts.
molecular structure
Molecular structure

This is true enough, but it becomes relevant to our understanding of individual vs. social only to the extent that one takes seriously Wilber's view that almost any collection of holons is a society. He does actually distinguish between societies and heaps, the latter being a collection of similar holons that interact very weakly, e.g., a pile of rocks. But in fact some of the collections that he refers to as societies—e.g., galaxies, stars, planets—contain very weakly interacting components, and I don't regard them as societies. No emergent properties result from these interactions—a key aspect of my definition of society—other than those purely dependent on size or quantity of interacting holons.

In other words, “bmj”'s criticism only applies to a system in which almost any set of weakly interacting holons is considered a society. I don't accept this view. None of the examples provided by “bmj” qualify by my definition as a society, except water molecules within living cells or organisms, and even there what makes the system a society has far more to do with other components than water molecules. Water is essential to life, providing something other components don't, but what it provides can be best understood in terms of these other components, as I will show later.

So the fact that a water molecule may behave differently in different contexts doesn't have much relevance, in my view, to our understanding of societies. The key to understanding societies is emergent forms of complexity that are far beyond any of the states of water molecules.

2. The 'multiple social circles' problem. In the real world individual holons don't exclusively socialize with their own species, they socialize, interact, and intermingle with a variety of holons, both individual and social. Think of humans and the dog species, humans and computers, humans and air molecules, bees and flowering plants, and the entire ecosystem (web of life). In stars if each type of nucleus (a single proton being the nucleus of Hydrogen) exclusively interacted with only its own kind (other protons), stars would have a significantly shorter life and we would not exist due to inability to generate heavier elements.

Wilber addresses this to some extent, in that he regards ecosystems as societies. But most of his societies are composed of identical or very similar holons, and I mostly agree with him in this regard. To take the example of our own species, the profoundly new emergent properties of societies result from interactions of humans primarily with each other, not with other species. Take away animals, machines, computers, or any other non-human component of modern human societies, and those societies would continue to exist. Their structure and function would be significantly altered, of course, but they would still be recognizable as human societies, as distinct from other types of societies.

So while I agree that our interaction with non-human holons is an important part of our societies, I don't' see that this precludes understanding human societies primarily in terms of humans interacting with humans. Our species is opportunistic; we will take advantage of anything that enhances our interactions with each other. It is this simple fact, not any particular non-human entity that provides the enhancement, that is the key.

3. The 'social life of social holons' problem. For many types of matter, so-called social holons can have social behavior with other social holons, such as the stars in a galaxy and galaxies within clusters, etc. For humans, both familial and conventional social holons form relatively stable groups which can interact as "wholes" with or within other groups. Think corporations, churches, sports teams etc.

Of course. This is accounted for in my model by the concept of stages within a level. Individual holons associate into social holons, which can in turn associate into still more complex social holons. At the molecular level, for example, atoms associate into simple molecules such as amino acids; amino acids associate into peptides; peptides associate into proteins. At the biological level, cells associate into tissues, tissues associate into more complex tissues, which in turn may form organs, and organ systems. On our level of existence, we have families associating into tribes, tribes into communities, communities into nations.

So I embrace this phenomenon. Wilber does to some extent, too, but he's handicapped by not recognizing stages within levels. Thus he must either define each stage as a different level—as he does in the case of various forms of human social organization—or ignore certain vital stages, as he does in the case of molecular organization of cells, and the cellular organization of organisms. For example, as an example of a cell society, he can only offer bacterial or prokaryotic colonies, which are extremely primitive forms of social organization, blind to the far more complex and sophisticated societies of cells that exist within organisms.

4. The 'dynamic universe' problem. Emergent collective behavior (leading to new instantiations of holons) can arise spontaneously or under certain conditions over widely different time and size scales and with a variety of "raw material". For example an individual dust devil can develop as emergent social behavior and be gone in minutes. Or the nucleation of water vapor in a storm can result in a collection of raindrops, some of which may combine to form larger drops. When these hit the ground some drops may collect as puddles or form rivulets. Given the continual dynamic movement and transformations of matter, it is hard to draw a line between individual social behavior of a single type of holon like a water molecule.

Again, I myself don't regard these examples as societies, or if they are, such weak ones that they hardly deserve the name. Genuine societies have relatively long lifetimes, longer by far than the lifetimes of their individual components. Human societies last longer than any individual person's life, and the same with animal societies, social organizations of cells (found within living organisms), and social organizations of molecules (found within living cells). This is just one feature of them that is consistent with their being a higher form of life than their individual components, another view of mine that differs dramatically from Wilber's.

It's possible for individual humans or other animals, cells or molecules to interact briefly, but in this case, not much of a society is formed. These interactions are far less important and significant than the stable interactions of genuine societies.

5. The 'heterogeneous universe' problem. In Wilber's scheme a star is proposed to be a social gathering of nuclei. However, in any stellar planetary system, the gravity of the star holds celestial bodies (planets, asteroids, comets, other minor bodies, dust, and vapor) in a fairly stable orbits and its influence can affect matter for lightyears around it. Is it more accurate to say that all matter in its gravitational influence is part of the social holon of a star? Or is this entire configuration an individual? When water is frozen and ice forms into a solid aggregate, is this holon social or individual? Is a collection of ice cubes in my refrigerator (or all refrigerators) social—do they party when the light does out?

I don't disagree with this. Again, this is an example of the kind of problems Wilber runs into when he regards celestial bodies as societies. I don't face this problem because I don't view them as societies. Societies by definition result from complex interactions of many individual holons, and the resulting stability clearly distinguishes them from other holons that might interact to some extent with these societies.

6. The 'species definition' problem. To this point I've been assuming that the "social" distinction in integral theory should address all holons in the universe. However, Wilber seems to mostly focus on humans and human social systems (interiors and exteriors). If this is the main focus of integral theory, then perhaps by "social" he really means intra-species interaction (e.g. human to human or horny toad to horny toad), which is fine if this were stated explicitly. However, when we walk down the holarchic ladder we pass from cells and DNA to simple molecules. How do we define a species at this level with a very wide span? Are all living cells the members of a single species or are only the same type of cells members of the same species? Are all molecules from water to DNA members of a single species or must we distinguish each molecule as its own species? And after we have clarified this do we expect then each species to have "internal" inter-subjective experience only with members of its own species?

Again, this may be a problem specific to Wilber's classification. In my system, societies at lower levels are formed from the interactions of highly similar holons. For example, a tissue within an organism is a society of cells. All these cells have the same DNA, and further—distinguishing them from cells of other tissues within the same organism—they express the same set of genes within this DNA.

Just as there are different species of multicellular organisms, there are different species of cells and molecules.

Molecules can be distinguished, in the first place, by their complexity. A simple molecule like water is very different from a small molecule like an amino acid or a nucleotide. The latter has properties very different from those of its constituent atoms. At a higher stage, peptides or nucleic acids—formed from interactions of amino acids and nucleotides, respectively—have properties different from their individual components. Three-dimensional molecules like globular proteins have properties different from peptides, and so on.

So I distinguish several different stages of molecules. Within each stage, there are different classes, e.g., amino acids can be distinguished from nucleotides, peptides can be distinguished from nucleic acids, globular proteins from conformational forms of nucleic acids, and so on. Just as there are different species of multicellular organisms, there are different species of cells and molecules.

Given these types of issues as representative of the vast complexity of "social behaviors", the distinction of individual vs. social doesn't provide any singularly deep "reorienting" insight. If we imagine interactions and behaviors of matter at all size scales and time scales, it is hard to cling to a simple holarchic picture with a one dimensional individual-social aspect unless we restrict ourselves to homogeneous same-species interactions only, which would ignore the tremendous heterogeneity and "cross-level holon interactions" of the universe.

This gets to the heart of “bmj”'s critique, I think. While I agree that there are interactions of holons on widely different scales of size and time, we clearly can identify, at multiple levels of existence, associations of highly similar holons that, by virtue of their size, stability, and complexity, are far different from the much briefer and/or weaker interactions these and other holons may engage in. Again, Wilber is vulnerable to “bmj”'s criticism, because he doesn't recognize that most molecular societies are found within cells, and most cellular societies are found within organisms. As soon as one grasps this, it's easy to distinguish the associations between individual components of a molecular or cellular society from those of any of these components with other holons outside of the cell or organism. We can identify cells as a specific form of life precisely because they are defined by the interactions of a set of molecules and macromolecules that are far stronger, stabler and more complex than the interactions some of these molecules may have with other molecules outside the cell.

The same is true of organisms with regard to the interactions of their cells. If this were not the case, we could not distinguish cells or organisms as independent forms of existence. The same is largely true with animal societies, that is, the interactions of members of these societies are much stabler and stronger than those between individual members and other forms of life outside of these societies.

I further argue that when societies are understood in this way, several “re-orienting insights” follow. First, every level of existence is defined by a single characteristic type of individual holon, which associates holarchically into societies of progressively greater complexity. On the physical level, the defining individual holon is the atom, which forms societies that include small molecules (e.g., amino acids, nucleotides, sugars), simple polymers (peptides, nucleic acids, complex carbohydrates), complex polymers (globular proteins), and still more complex macromolecules. On the biological level, the defining individual holon is the cells which associates into simple and complex tissues, organs and organ systems. The social level is defined by organisms, which associate into increasingly complex animal societies.

Second, each social stage within a level can be understood in terms of dimensions.[1] For example, an amino acid is a one-dimensional molecule, a peptide is a two-dimensional molecule, a globular protein is a three-dimensional molecule, an active enzyme is a four-dimensional molecule, and a metabolic network is a five-dimensional interaction of molecules. This is true in both a structural and functional sense. Structurally, each new dimension results from the association of multiple forms of the previous dimension. An amino acid is an association of atoms; a peptide is an association of amino acids; a globular protein is an association of peptides; an enzyme molecule is an association of several states of a globular protein over a characteristic unit of time; a metabolic network is an association of enzymes over a second dimension of time.

Third, each stage of dimensionality is also functionally defined, by which I mean it's associated with a corresponding ability to interact with the environment in that number of dimensions. For example, an amino acid, a one-dimensional stage, can make intensity discriminations, e.g., respond to differences along a one-dimensional gradient of pH. Depending on the pH of its environment, it may associate to a greater or lesser degree with hydrogen ions. A peptide molecule can recognize and be recognized through two-dimensional surface features. For example, when a particular transfer RNA molecule attaches itself to a specific amino acid in the process of protein synthesis within all cells, it is recognizing two dimensional features, the arrangement of several atoms it comes into contact with. A protein molecule can recognize and be recognized through a three-dimensional surface or conformation. Beginning with enzymes, the dimension of time is added to the recognition process.

The same is true at higher levels of existence. We can define one-, two-, three- and so on dimensional societies of cells, which exhibit the ability to interact with their environment in the corresponding number of dimensions. For example, chemotaxis in bacteria is one-dimensional interaction, the ability to sense a gradient in concentration of some substance in the surrounding medium. Some cells can distinguish different classes of chemical substances, which is a two-dimensional form of discrimination (the first dimension being the concentration of the substance, the second being the particular type of substance). Within organisms, where all the higher, more complex societies of cells are found, there are cells that can distinguish individual forms of other cells, which requires three-dimensional discrimination; there are cells that can distinguish particular dynamic states of other cells, which is four-dimensional discrimination; and so on.

Likewise, these different degrees of dimensionality are also recognized by different types of animals. Primitive organisms like many types of worms can sense the intensity of light or other forms of energy, a one-dimensional property. Arthropods and some other higher invertebrates can distinguish classes of chemicals and also distinguish kin from non-kin; these involve two-dimensional perception. With vertebrates emerge three-dimensional and higher forms of interaction with the environment.

The reader may notice that while I began by associating dimensionality with different stages of molecular organization, when I considered the higher biological and social levels, I identified it with individual cells and individual organisms. In fact, at every level, dimensionality is associated with both societies and their members. This constitutes a fourth key insight.

Let's go back to the amino acid and its one-dimensional property of recognizing pH. Certain individual oxygen atoms in the amino acid also exhibit the ability to recognize pH. Depending on the pH of the medium, they will associate more or less strongly with hydrogen ions. This is a property that an oxygen atom in water does not have (at least not to anywhere near the same degree), and results specifically from its association, its social interactions, with other atoms in the amino acid. That is, by virtue of being a member of a one-dimensional society, the oxygen atom acquires to some extent its own properties of one-dimensionality: the ability to distinguish pH through changing the intensity of its interaction with hydrogen atoms.

Likewise, an oxygen atom in a two-dimensional molecule like a peptide may have properties that neither oxygen atoms in water nor those in amino acids have—e.g., the ability to recognize a two-dimensional features in other molecules. Certain atoms within three-dimensional molecules have the ability to recognize three-dimensional conformations, and so on. In each case, the atoms acquire their higher-dimensional properties by virtue of being a member of a higher-dimensional society.

The same relationship holds at higher levels of existence, and this is why we can speak of the higher dimensional properties of cells and organisms. The ability of cells within organisms to interact with other cells in two-, three- or higher forms of dimensions results from their membership in societies of these dimensions. The same is true of organisms, and their societies. In all cases, the ability to perceive the world in various numbers of dimensions is primarily a social property that individual holons acquire to some extent by being members of a society.

To summarize, while individual holons are capable of a wide variety of interactions with each other, we can define societies, at every level of existence, as social organizations of highly similar holons that are relatively strong, stable and long-lasting. These societies are further distinguished by their ability to associate with each other in still higher, more complex societies, and one of the signal features of complexity is dimensionality, with each new form of association adding another dimension, in both a structural and functional sense.

So the most important insight we can take from the individual-social relationship is that it explains why we perceive the world in multiple dimensions. The ability to experience multiple dimensions is a social property that is closely connected to the multiple structural dimensions that arise when individual holons interact to form a society, then societies in turn interact to form more complex societies. It evolved in step-wise fashion, one dimension at a time, by a process that is basically repeated at multiple levels of existence, the physical, the biological, and what I call the social.


1. These dimensions are not precisely mathematical, as classically embodied in lines, planes, spheres, and so on, but closely approximate them. Whereas a line is a collection of an infinite number of points, a plane contains an infinite number of lines, and so on, a one-dimensional molecule contains a large but not infinite number of atoms, a two-dimensional molecule contains a large number of one-dimensional molecules, and so on. In the same way, though I argue for a second-dimension of time, I'm not claiming that this has a reality in a physical sense, only that the properties of certain higher stages involve an association of many lower holons that have four-dimensional properties. I emphasize this distinction by referring to these dimensions as “natural”, as opposed to mathematical.

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