The Tao, Holons, and the Theory of Everything

Jan Krikke
14 min readJan 18, 2024

A different way of looking at science and culture

In 1967, the Hungarian-born author and journalist Arthur Koestler introduced the concept of holons. The word holon is derived from the Greek word holos, meaning whole, and on, meaning part. Holons represent entities that are simultaneously whole. Koestler called it the holarchy, the combination of the words holon and hierarchy.

Koestler proposed that holons exist at multiple levels of organization, forming a hierarchy where each holon is both an autonomous entity and a component of a larger holon. The concept can be applied to virtually all aspects of life, from biology and psychology to physics and organizational structures.

1 — The holons in Koestler’s holarchy. Every holon affects other holons.

Koestler explained that cells, for instance, can be seen as holons within the “holarchy” of an organism. The same principle can be extended to social structures, where individuals

2 — Example of holons as part of a larger system or holarchy

Koestler outlined his ideas in The Ghost in the Machine, an influential book that offered a critique of the mechanistic and reductionist Newtonian approach to understanding human beings that was prevalent until the early 20th century. He noted that the reduction of consciousness and mind to purely physical and deterministic processes ignores the complexity and richness of human existence.

The term “ghost in the machine” refers to the idea that there is something more to human consciousness and experience than can be explained by the physical components of the body alone. Koestler argued for a holistic understanding of human nature that takes into account both the physical and non-physical aspects of existence.

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber applied the concept of holarchies in his book A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Wilber integrated Koestler’s notion of the holarchy with his Four Quadrants, the centerpiece of Integral Theory that offers people an integral lens for looking at the world and themselves.

The idea of a Theory of Everything (TOE) initially referred to attempts by scientists to reconcile Einstein’s Relativity Theory (the macro cosmos) with Quantum Theory (the microcosmos) and create one unified theory for quantum physics. Wilber, using Koestler’s holarchy concept, expanded the idea of a TOE to cover all dimensions of human life.

Wilber distinguished two types of hierarchies: dominator and natural hierarchies. He says, “Virtually all growth processes, from matter to life to mind, occur via natural holarchies, or orders of increasing holism and wholeness — wholes that become parts of new wholes — and that’s natural hierarchy or holarchy.”

In his TOE, Wilber expanded the holarchy to the fields of nearly all the major domains of human life, psychology, ecology, science, and spirituality. A life-long student of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Wilber frequently refers to Eastern thought, which has traditionally emphasized the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all things.

Some scholars mentioned the atom and the monad as the conceptual predecessor of the holon. Greek philosophers referred to the atom as the smallest indivisible building block of nature. The monad, conceived by Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th century, resembles a dynamic, “living” version of the atom.

Leibniz gave monads several characteristics that Koestler and Wilber also ascribe to holons. Like monads, holons are the irreducible components of reality. They are said to have awareness, presence, and perception. The action of one holon reverberates through the entire system.

Koestler and Wilber are said to have used holons to undercut the classic argument between atomism and wholism. Koestler didn’t regard holons as actual entities or objects, but as a systematic way to relate to theoretical structure. So-called Wilberians are still debating whether Wilber treated holons as actual entities in his Four Quadrants map.

While holons are a useful conceptual tool, they are at the same time incongruent with “ultimate reality.” Holons have implied boundaries. If we expand the holarchy to encompass the cosmos, we come up against infinity. The universe is boundless.

Koestler and Wilber were responding to two different developments in the early 20th century — the development of quantum physics and the growing exposure to the Eastern worldview. Quantum physics revealed the subatomic substrate of nature, and Eastern religious traditions opened a vista to transcendental wisdom that emphasized the interconnectedness of all things.

For quantum physics pioneers like Ervin Schrodinger, these two seemingly distinct developments were related. In his book What is Life, Schrodinger argued that the Eastern worldview anticipated the subatomic realm that was laid bare by quantum physics. The parallels between quantum physics and Eastern thought were captured by Fritjof Capra in his best-selling book The Tao of Physics.

The meeting between East and West resulted in a vital exchange of needs. While the East absorbed Newtonian physics to industrialize its societies, the West started to overcome Newton’s mechanical worldview, inspired by Eastern ways of thinking.

Cybernetics

Koestler’s holarchy has been associated with General Systems Theory (GST), a science that emerged in the mid-20th century as a response to industrial development that led to ever-larger “systems” like factories, railroads, and urban centers.

Part of GST is Cybernetics, specifically developed in the 1940s for the emerging field of computer sciences. Koestler and Wilber mention GST and Cybernetics, but they are not fully aware of the importance of these new disciplines or their origin.

In GST, all systems, whether biological, social, physical, or organizational, share certain principles and characteristics, among them hierarchy, feedback, balance, and interdependence. GST is focused on the interconnectedness and interdependence of components within a system.

3 — The political process as a feedback system

In Cybernetics, developed during and after WWII by a team headed by Norbert Wiener, the focus is on feedback mechanisms. The term “cybernetics” is derived from the Greek word “kybernetes,” meaning steersman, helmsman, or governor.

A basic example of a feedback system is a thermostat: IF the temperature drops below X, THEN activate the heater. The same (Boolean) logic is used in the autopilot of an airliner, a textbook example of a cybernetic system. IF the aircraft goes off course due to strong winds, THEN initiate a course correction.

Cybernetic systems navigate between two opposite forces — input-output, active-passive, hot-cold, fast-slow, etc. It is a methodology to navigate systems to their desired destination and is now used in fields ranging from management and economics to biology, medicine, education, and ecology. Cybernetics is the precursor to Artificial Intelligence.

When we look at the history of cybernetics, we meet up again with Gottfried.. Leibniz invented the binary code. Norbert Wiener regarded Leibniz as the Patron Saint of cybernetics. Cybernetics was the first comprehensive science for digital (actually binary) computers.

Leibniz was among the first to a mechanical calculator. To simplify its design, he developed the binary code, a method of arithmetic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division using only 0s and 1s.

The binary code inspired the 19th-century mathematician George Boole to develop an algebra of classes. Boolean algebra enabled mathematicians to perform mathematical operations on classes (units or groups) that had previously not been regarded as mathematical objects.

A Boolean class can be things or objects that share certain features or characteristics. Apples and oranges are two different classes but they can be accommodated in a class called fruit. (When we look “under the hood” of the Internet, we find one large Boolean logic machine.)

4 — The “binary” logic of the Boolean algebra of classes.

In the 1930s, mathematician Claude Shannon brought Leibniz’s binary code and Boole’s algebra of classes together in his landmark paper A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. Shannon single-handedly set the stage for the digital revolution.

Shannon, an electrical engineer, was working on mathematical problems of increasingly complex telephone switching circuits. He realized that Leibniz’s binary code could be used to implement Boolean logic in electrical circuits. The binary number 1 would denote “true” (yes, inside a class), 0 would be “false” (no, outside a class).

Shannon’s second insight was crucial to the development of the digital revolution. He realized that we can give a binary number or a binary string any attribute we desire. Binary numbers can represent letters, numbers, images, and even sound. This insight would earn him the title Father of the Information Age.

One of the first applications of Shannon’s insight was the ASCII code, a character encoding standard used for computers. The letter A on a keyboard is the attribute of the binary string 100 0001. Shannon was crucial in the development of binary computing, cybernetics, and the Internet. It earned him the title Farther of the Information Age.

5 — Letters and number represented by binary strings.

The first binary code

Leibniz published his first paper on the binary code at the end of the 17th century. Early in the 18th century, he published a second paper on the binary code in which he made a remarkable claim. The Chinese, he wrote, were the true inventors of the binary code.

Leibniz had shared his first paper on the binary code with Father Bouvet, a celebrated Jesuit priest living in China. Father Bouvet responded by saying the Chinese had used a binary code for many centuries. He sent Leibniz a diagram of the 64 hexagrams, the six-lined figures used in the Book of Changes that are based on the Eight Trigrams.

6 — The 64 hexagrams, the basis of the Book of Changes (I Ching).

Leibniz subsequently wrote a second paper on the binary code to credit the Chinese with inventing the first binary code. While the Chinese used a different notation — broken and unbroken lines rather than 0 and 1 — Leibniz argued the principle was the same. He included a diagram in his paper that “transcribed” the trigrams into the binary code.

7 — Leibniz’s transcription of the yin-yang code into the binary code.

Historians routinely dismissed Leibniz’s claim as a fantasy until the 1960s, when the sinologist Joseph Needham discussed Leibniz in his monumental study Science and Civilisation in China. Computer science was just moving from analog to binary systems and Needham saw a connection between Leibniz’s binary code and the new science of cybernetics. He wrote:

“It [the binary code] has been found to be, as Wiener points out in his important book on cybernetics (the study of self-regulating systems whether animal or mechanical), the most suitable system for the great computing machines of the present day. It has been found convenient to build them on a binary basis, using only ‘on’ or ‘off’ positions, whether of switches in electrical circuits or of thermonic valves, and the type of algorithm followed is therefore the Boolean algebra of classes, which gives only the choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, of being either inside a class or outside. It is therefore no coincidence that Leibniz, besides developing the binary arithmetic, was also the founder of modern mathematical logic and a pioneer in the construction of calculating machines. As we may see later, Chinese influence was responsible, at least in part, for his conception of an algebraic or mathematical logic, just as the system of order in the Book of Changes foreshadowed the binary arithmetic.”

Qi

Leibniz gave his binary code a theological significance. He wrote: “All combinations arise from unity and nothing, which is like saying that God made everything from nothing, and that there were only two first principles, God and nothing.”

The Chinese didn’t develop the concept of a personal god, but their cosmology also assumed that a binary principle was the foundation of all existence. This notion is reflected in the Chinese view of Creation: When the yin and the yang, initially united, separated forever, the mountains poured forth water.” Water pouring from mountains was the main theme of classic Chinese art.

8 — Classic Chinese “mountain-water picture” by 11th-century master Fan K’uan.

The Chinese had a special term for the tension between yin and yang. They called it qi, a term variously translated as cosmic breath, spirit, and vital force. Joseph Needham, borrowing a concept of quantum physics, translated qi as “matter-energy.” The closest equivalent in the West is ether, the “medium” traditionally believed to fill all space and the “carrier” of electromagnetic waves.”

The Chinese sage next set out to codify natural polarities: Heaven and Earth, positieve and negative, light and dark, growth and decay, and so on. The sages reasoned that if the universe was based on the tension between opposites, they would do well to identify as many opposites as possible to “insert” themselves into the binary universe with the least amount of frictional loss.

The Eight Trigrams are the foundation of the yin-yang system. Heaven is pure yang, Earth is pure yin. Six terrestrial processes (water, wind, lighting, etc., the result of the interaction between Heaven and Earth), are degrees or stages of yin and yang. The 64 hexagrams, the Eight Trigrams in all possible combinations, are further differentiations of yin-yang stages.

9 — Confucius linked humans with nature by adding the family to the yin-yang system

The Eight Trigrams and the 64 hexagrams can be seen as the ASCII code for the yin-yang system. Moreover, trigrams and hexagrams are comparable to Boolean classes. They represent entities with different levels of qi.

In the 11th century, the Neo-Confucian scholar Chou Tun-yi integrated the yin-yang system and the Five Elements into a unified view of Chinese cosmology. Chou’s diagram is not scientific; it does not explain the mechanical, biological, organic, and electromagnetic processes at work in nature, but it conceptually accommodates them all.

10 — China’s Tao-based cosmology in two graphs.

Tao and its primary manifestation, qi, is Koestler’s “ghost in the machine,” his belief that there is something beyond the purely physical that permeates and animates the universe.

Ironically, quantum physics did away with the ether, the Western equivalent of qi. Up to the early 20th century, the intangible and invisible ether was considered the substrate of nature, permeating everything. Radio waves were assumed to travel across the ether.

Einstein’s Relativity Theory, a mathematical model for space and time, does not require the existence of the ether. Moreover, scientific attempts to detect the presence of the ether were unsuccessful. Today, any mention of the ether is regarded as unscientific.

But Einstein, who spent years trying to develop a unified quantum theory, was among the few scientists to have an open mind about the ether. He told an audience at Leiden University in 1919 that Relativity Theory does not require the ether but the theory does not preclude its existence. “To deny the ether,” he said, “is ultimately to assume that empty space has no physical qualities whatsoever.”

The maverick scientist Nikola Tesla believed that quantum physics had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Tesla developed an ether theory in the 1890s, well before the quantum revolution overshadowed his work. In an article written in 1930, “Man’s Greatest Achievement,” Tesla summarized his views for posterity.

“All perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the akasha or luminiferous ether, which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never-ending cycles all things and phenomena.”

Quantum physics ended the Western debate about the ether. It was the consequence of a scientific worldview: If something cannot be detected, observed, and quantified, it probably doesn’t exist. However, quantum theory did not lead the Chinese to discard the notion of qi, nor did it lead the Indians to reject the Vedic equivalent of the ether, Akasha, the aetheric element that permeates the cosmos.

Consciousness

The holon theories of Koestler and Wilber are suspended somewhere between physics and metaphysics. The holon is conceptually closer to a Newtonian worldview than it is to a quantum worldview, but it fits neither category. Like the ether, a holon can’t be observed or quantified.

Koestler and Wilber nonetheless argue that holons have consciousness. Koestler writes: “An ideal society … could be said to possess ‘hierarchic awareness’, where every holon on every level is conscious both of its rights as a whole and its duties as a part.

Similarly, Wilber attributes consciousness to holons in the Twenty Tenets he ascribes to consciousness. In A Brief History of Everything he writes: “Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span. (…) The greater the depth of a holon, the greater its degree of consciousness.

The word consciousness as it is commonly used and understood in the West today is attributed to René Descartes. He defined it as “an intrinsic property of all thoughts.” John Locke defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” Such definitions leave much room for interpretation.

In recent decades, the meaning of the word consciousness has been stretched far beyond its original meaning, partly the result of quantum physics. Some scholars argue that the universe is conscious, implying that consciousness existed before the development of human life. This notion makes consciousness both an anthropomorphic and cosmic phenomenon.

Moreover, consciousness means different things in different cultures. In China, the word for consciousness is xin, a compound character that means “heart-mind.”

In the Western view, consciousness arises naturally, in Confucian thought, xin must be cultivated. It develops in the framework and context of a collectivist, group-oriented culture that stresses mutual obligation over individuality. ​Group-centered consciousness will have different neurological triggers than an individualistic-oriented consciousness.

Indian notions of consciousness have been shaped by the Vedic tradition, which holds that the mind has four primary part: buddhi (intellect), manas (memory, mental and physical!), ahankara (identity or ego), chitta (cosmic awareness).

11 — The yogic view of mind.

The popular Indian yogic teacher Sadhguru, who appeals to both spiritual audiences and the scientific community (neuroscientists, the AI community, among others), explains that the intellect “…analyzes and dissects” by accessing our memory, which is shaped by our identity, be it nationality, ideology, profession, or religion. When we transcend the boundaries of our memory, chitta becomes a mirror of the source of Creation​, (comparable to a Taoist hermit seeking communion with Tao).

While the Vedic tradition identified memory as one of four parts of the mind, memory is not limited to mental processes. Vedic sages identified eight forms of memory, among them elemental memory, atomic memory, evolutionary memory, karmic memory, sensory memory. Sadhguru says:

“I don’t think modern science disagrees that the memory is entrenched in the body, in every cell — because genes, chromosomes, and DNA, are all products of memory. My genetic content is my memory, and your genetic content is your memory. We may have a common evolutionary memory, but we have a distinctly different genetic memory. I don’t see how science can disagree with this because this is a body of memory.”

The Vedic sages did not know about the biochemistry at work in molecules and cells, but they intuited intuited the “quantum” substrate of existence. It explains why the Vedic classics appealed to quantum physics pioneers like Oppenheimer, Einstein, and Bohr. As Erwin Schrödinger wrote in his book What is Life?, “Quantum theory will not look ridiculous to people who have read Vedanta.”

12 — The Human Hierarchy of Cybernetics from Milsum and Laszlo

When it comes to the nature of reality, we should distinguish empirical science and applied physics on the one hand, and philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences on the other hand. The holarchy proposed by Koestler can be a useful tool for holistic thinking, it can’t form the basis for modeling the nature of ultimate reality. A Theory of Everything should take into account European empirical science, Chinese cosmology, and Indian transcendence.

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Jan Krikke

Author of Creating a Planetary Culture: European Science, Chinese art, and Indian Transcendence