Ken Wilber’s Twenty Tenets are:
1. Reality is not composed of things or processes, but of holons, which are wholes that are simultaneously parts.
2. Holons display four fundamental capacities:
a. self-preservation (agency)
b. self-adaptation (communion)
3. Holons emerge.
4. Holons emerge holarchically.
5. Each holon transcends and includes its predecessors.
6. The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower.
7. The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises determines whether it is ‘shallow’ or ‘deep;’ and the number of holons on any given level we shall call its ‘span.’
8. Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span.
9. Destroy any type of holon, and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it.
10. Holarchies co-evolve. The micro is always within the macro (all agency is agency in communion).
11. The micro is in relational exchange with macro at all levels of its depth.
12. Evolution has directionality:
a. increasing complexity.
b. increasing differentiation/integration.
c. increasing organization/structuration.
d. increasing relative autonomy.
e. increasing telos.
According to Wilber, the Twenty Tenets are an attempt to summarize and draw some basic conclusions from dynamic systems theory and the contemporary evolutionary sciences. Calling them "tendencies of evolution" or "propensities of manifestation," the Twenty Tenets operate throughout the three great domains of evolution: the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere (or matter, life, and mind).
In his presentation, Leonard pointed out that what is both significant and striking about Wilber’s Twenty Tenets is that they describe regularities stretching from the big bang all the way up to exalted spiritual states of consciousness in humans. Here are some are some of the highlights:
Wilber uses the terms "holons" and "holarchy" throughout the Twenty Tenets. The author of The Ghost in the Machine (1976) Arthur Koestler originally coined the term "holon" to refer to that which is a whole in one context but simultaneously a part in another. For example, the word "bark" is a whole because by itself it has a recognizable and independent meaning. However, in the sentence "the bark of a dog" the word "bark" has a context-specific meaning, which would be different in a separate context, such as "the bark on a tree." The word "bark" thus can be both a whole by itself and a part within the larger context of a sentence. "Holarchy" refers to the embedded nature of holons. For example, the whole sentence "the bark of a dog scared me" can simultaneously be part of a yet larger whole, such as a paragraph. And, in turn, the paragraph can be part of an essay, and so forth.
Reality is not composed of things or processes, but of holons, which are wholes that are simultaneously parts of other wholes with no upward or downward limit. Since reality is not composed of wholes nor of parts, but of whole/parts, then this approach undercuts the old argument between atomism (all things are fundamentally isolated individual wholes that interact by chance) and wholism (all things are merely strands in a larger web). For Wilber, both of these views by themselves are incorrect. This approach also undercuts the argument the materialists and idealists. Reality is not composed of sub-atomic particles (materialism) nor is it composed of ideas, symbols, or thoughts (idealism). It is composed of holons. According to Wilber, holons can be expressed in material, spiritual, or purely abstract terms. Take mathematics, for example. The various paradoxes that have arisen in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem take us into an irreversible, ever-expanding, no upper limit mathematical universe. The totality of mathematical sets can’t be completely determined. If they could be, we could take that a set and continue to generate still larger sets from it. Sets are arranged in a transfinite hierarchy. In mathematics, what we see as today’s wholes may very well become tomorrow’s parts.
Tenets 2 a,b,c,d
2 a: Self-preservation (or agency). A hydrogen atom in a suitable context can keep on being a hydrogen atom. It displays self-preservation in the simple sense of maintaining identity or agency across time. And maybe that is quite remarkable when you think about it. A holon in a living context is an even more remarkable, sophisticated agency. The term autopoiesis refers to how a holon maintains its pattern or structure even as its material components are exchanged. It assimilates the environment to itself. In short, holons are defined not by the stuff of which they are made but by the pattern they display.
2 b: Self-adaptation (or communion). A holon functions not only as a self-preserving whole but also as a part of a larger whole. The partness aspect of a holon is displayed by its capacity to accommodate, to register other holons, to fit into its existing environment. Even electrons accommodate themselves, for example, to the number of other electrons in an orbital shell. This is not to imply that taboo word "intentionality." It is just the capacity to react to the surrounding environment. So, think of these two opposing tendencies—agency and communion: agency as the self-preserving, self-asserting tendency which expresses wholeness and relative autonomy; and communion as the participatory boding, joining tendency which expresses partness in relationship to something larger. An excess of either tendency can deform or kill a holon, whether the growth of a plant or of the patriarchy.
2 c: Self-transcendence. When an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms are brought together under suitable conditions, a new and in some way unprecedented holon emerges. This is not just a communion, adaptation, or association. It is a transformation resulting in something novel and emergent. This is what Whitehead calls creativity, the category necessary to describe any other category. This transcendence can result in small or quite large steps in organic evolution in what is called grade. Here, Darwinian gradualism is replaced by Simpson’s quantum evolution, Eldridge and Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, and Michael Murphy’s evolutionary transcendence. In any case, self-transcendence means nothing more or nothing less than that the universe has an intrinsic capacity to go beyond what came before.
2d: Self-dissolution. Holons that are built up through vertical self-transcendence can also break down. When holons dissolve or become unglued, they tend to so along the same vertical sequence along which they were built up.
Leonard pointed out that there is a constant tension among the above four tendencies. For example, helium may be called inert, but a different description is that helium does not want to join into communion (tenet 2b) with other elements.
Holons emerge. Owing to the self-transcendent capacity of holons, new holons emerge. Sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, polymers, cells, and so on, the emergent holon is in some sense novel. They possess properties and qualities that can’t be strictly and totally deduced from their components, and therefore they and their descriptions can’t be reduced without remainder to their component parts. Emergence always means indeterminacy is sewn into the very fabric of the universe. Quoting from Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (p. 47) Leonard read,
Emergence is neither a rare nor an isolated phenomenon. As Varela, Thompson, and Rosch summarize the available evidence: "It is clear that emergent properties have been found across all domains—vortices and lasers, chemical oscillations, genetic networks, developmental patterns, population genetics, immune networks, ecology, and geophysics. What all these diverse phenomena have in common is that in each case a network gives rise to new properties. . . . The emergence of global patterns or configurations in systems of interacting elements is neither an oddity of isolated cases nor unique to [special] systems. In fact, it seems difficult for any densely connected aggregate to escape emergent properties." (Francisco Varela, et. al., The Embodied Mind, pp. 88-90.)
Holons emerge holarchically. That is, hierarchically. That is, as a series of increasing whole/parts. Organisms contain cells but not vice versa. Cells contain molecules but not vice versa. Molecules contain atoms but not vice versa. That "not vice versa" at each stage is what constitutes unavoidable asymmetry and hierarchy/holarchy. Each deeper or higher holon embraces its junior predecessors and then adds its own new and more encompassing pattern or holon. This is Whitehead’s famous dictum, "the many become one and are increased by one." Quoting from Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (p. 49) Leonard read,
Bertalanffy put it very bluntly: "Reality, in the modern conception, appears as a tremendous hierarchical order of organized entities, leading, in a superposition of many levels, from physical and chemical to biological and sociological systems. Such hierarchical structure and combination into systems of ever higher order, is characteristic of reality as a whole and is of fundamental importance especially in biology, psychology and sociology." (Ludwig Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory, pp. 74, 87.)
It is this idea of hierarchy and holarchy that has put Wilber at odds with the deep ecologists and ecofeminists.
Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessors. Each newly emergent holon preserves the previous holons themselves but negates their separateness or isolatedness. As Hegel said, "to supercede is at once to preserve and negate." In other words, all the lower is in the higher but not all the higher is in the lower. Hydrogen atoms are in the water molecule but the water molecule is not in the atom. We might say the water molecule pervades or permeates the atom but it isn’t actually in it. Just as all of the word is in the sentence but not all the sentence is in the word. The higher holon preserves the lower, but it does somehow limit freedom. Once in a sentence a word can’t take on alternative meaning. Once in a molecule the hydrogen atom can’t go flying around in space and become part of a proto-galaxy.
The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower. Even though the higher goes beyond the lower level, it does not violate the law or pattern of the lower level. It can’t be reduced to the lower level or determined by the lower level, but neither can it ignore the lower level. Your body follows the laws of gravity. Your mind follows other laws, such as those of symbolic communication and linguistic syntax. But if your body falls off a cliff, your mind goes with it. Clearly, the lower sets the possibility of a large framework within which the higher has to operate, but to which it is not confined. As for the higher restricting the possibility of the lower, here is how Sheldrake puts it (Quoted from Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p.55),
At every level, the fields of the holons are probabilistic, and the material processes within the holon are somewhat random or indeterminate. Higher-level fields may act upon the fields of lower level holons in such a way that their probability structures are modified. This can be thought of in terms of a restriction of their indeterminism: out of the many possible patterns of events that could have happened, some now become much more likely to happen as a result of the order imposed by the higher-level field. This field organizes and patterns the indeterminism that would be shown by the lower-level holons in isolation. (Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past, pp. 120-121.)
The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises determines whether it is ‘shallow’ or ‘deep;’ and the number of holons on any given level we shall call its ‘span.’ Let us arbitrarily assign atoms a depth of 3 (since they contain components of at least 2 previous levels). Let us imagine a time in the early universe when there were only atoms and no molecules. In that case, we can say that atoms have a small depth but an enormous span stretching through the existent universe. Thus depth equals 3 and span equals zillions. When molecules first emerged, they had a depth of 4, but initially a very small span. When there is greater vertical dimension to the holon, then there is greater depth to that holon.
Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span. The greater the depth of a holon, the more precarious its situation. Since its existence depends on the existence of a series of other holons internal to it, and since the lower holons are components of the higher, there can’t be more number of the higher than there are number of components. The number of water molecules will always be less than the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the universe. The number of cells in the universe will always be less than the number of molecules in the universe. Also, the span of mental holons is much less than the span of living holons. This is called the pyramid of development. Addition 1 to Tenet 8: The greater the depth of a holon, the greater its degree of consciousness. In the case of the simplest holons, Wilber is not referring to consciousness as humans experience it, but is following the lead of major theorists, such as Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Whitehead, Aurobindo, and Schelling, who explicitly recognize the "within" of the universe. Whithead’s prehension, for example, is a sort of rudimentary consciousness. This extends all the way up to high spiritual states, and this makes it an extremely ambitious scheme. One that can’t be proven by our present methods of science.
Destroy any type of holon, and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it. This is an important tenet because it provides a simple test as to where in the holarchy any holon stands. Let’s again take our familiar holistic sequence, sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, and so on. Here each member includes its predecessor(s) but not vice versa. And thus each successive number is indeed more encompassing or thus more holistic. If we destroyed, for example, all the molecules in the universe, we would also destroy all the cells in the universe—all the holons above molecules. But atoms and subatomic particles would or could still exist. None of the lower holons would have to cease existing. For this tenet, Wilber introduces two words representing two qualities that operate in an inverse relationship: fundamental and significant. The more fundamental a holon is, the less significant it is and vice versa. That is, the less depth a holon has, the more fundamental it is to the cosmos, because it serves as a component to so many other holons. Atoms, for example, are very fundamental because molecules, cells, organisms, life, and mind, and higher states, all depend on them. At the same time, the less depth a holon has the less significant it is to the cosmos because it embraces as its own component so little of the cosmos. Primates, as a counter example, are not very fundamental holons because neither atoms nor molecules depend upon them, but they are very significant because they represent and contain atoms, molecules, and cells. They signify more of the cosmos.
Holarchies co-evolve. Holons don’t evolve alone, because there are no alone holons (there are only fields within fields within fields). This principle is often referred to as "co-evolution," which simply means that the "unit" of evolution is not an isolated holon but a holon plus its inseparable environment. Even though an individual holon exists inseparably within its social environment, its defining factor is its own particular form or pattern. To the degree that we can reasonably recognize that pattern, we will refer to an individual holon. Its environment we will call the social holon.
The micro is in relational exchange with macro at all levels of its depth. Take a human being as an example using the three levels of matter, life, and mind. All these levels maintain their own existence through a network of relational exchanges with holons at the same depth in the environment. The physical body exists in a system of relational exchanges with other physical bodies in terms of gravitation, material forces, energies, light, water, and so on. The human race reproduces itself physically through food production and consumption. Humanity reproduces itself biologically through emotional-sexual relations organized by family and appropriate social environment and depends on a whole network of other biological systems. Finally, human beings reproduce themselves mentally through exchanges with cultural and symbolic environments, the very essence of which is the relational exchange of symbols with other symbol exchangers. In short, as holons evolve, each layer of depth continues to exist and depend upon a network of relationships with other holons at the same level of structure and organization.
Tenets 12 a,b,c,d,e
At this point in his presentation Leonard opened up the floor to the other participants for questions and conversation, and thus he did not cover the last five of the Twenty Tenets in detail. Briefly, those last five are:
Evolution has directionality:
a. increasing complexity.
b. increasing differentiation/integration.
c. increasing organization/structuration.
d. increasing relative autonomy.
e. increasing telos.
For further information about Ken Wilber and the Twenty Tenets, please see his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Shambhala 1995.