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Understanding Holism: How it May Form a Basis
for Understanding Many Other Things

By Dr Paul Freinkel


If systems are forever evolving into more complex adaptive integrated wholes, the same underlying principles of organization should apply in its own way at each of Kriel's levels of complexity mentioned above. Systems interact, share and record information within an environment and evolve higher levels of order. This holds true within the level of Material Systems. For example sodium metal when placed in water will react violently to displace hydrogen from the water molecule and will bind with oxygen to form a stable system of sodium hydroxide. Information has been exchanged between atoms (communication has taken place) and molecular conformation has changed (the system has adapted). The reaction releases heat thus increasing its entropy. Should enough sodium be present the heat released from the reaction will ignite the released hydrogen and a meta-system within the level of Material Systems will have developed. Each element has exchanged information, acted according to its nature and a new system has potentially, if momentarily, emerged. Chemical elements exchange information, react, and combine for infinitely more complex Living (Material) Systems to emerge such as cells11 . These cells then interact, exchange entropy through metabolism of other cells, communicate with self and other cells within an ecosystem and thus form the foundation for another infinitely more complex Conscious (Living Material) System for example the human body13 . The same applies for the complex organization of human social systems in that they are reliant on food, fuel, interaction and communication. It seems that communication, interaction in an environment and entropy exchange are the means of holism applicable to all 4 levels of organization from material systems all the way through to self-conscious (living material) systems. They are the same processes that take place in spontaneous system organization and holistic emergence, each according to its level's specific complexity.

The study of each level therefore also lends itself to different disciplinary approaches. For instance human consciousness is studied through the (often related) disciplines of psychology, religion, philosophy and mysticism while the material system is studied through physics and related disciplines. What is interesting to note is that often a principle or law of nature developed for one level of complexity in a specific discipline applies equally well to another given the context of the complexity of the level. Newton's law of inertia, stating that a body at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted upon by an unequal force, was developed to describe a material system, yet applies equally well to self conscious systems. It helps to understand nicotine addiction and why people (in my anecdotal experience as a general practitioner) continue to smoke in spite of the knowledge of the grave associated health risks yet stop after experiencing a myocardial infarction; or on the socio-behavioral level, the phenomenon that sexually active adolescents in the HIV / AIDS pandemic in Kwa-Zulu South Africa, like in other populations14 , modify their sexual behaviour according to their perceived risk and perceived susceptibility to HIV infection15 . The habit (inertia) is modified by an external force (risk of disease). While the following statement is inductive and therefore by definition qualified, within the context of holism, principles and disciplinary approaches at one level of organizational complexity may be used to understand the dynamics of other levels as well. This idea proves useful in laying groundwork for understanding the interaction of apparently disparate complex systems.

In the field of mind-body medicine the terminology for the study of mind takes place within the disciplines of philosophy, mysticism and psychology; whereas the body is traditionally approached in the mainly reductionist context of bio-molecular medicine. Both disciplines are describing interacting complex systems and should be understood in the context of the other. One can no longer understand disease solely as a bio-molecular malfunctioning at a cellular level within an organ or organ system4 because there is mounting body of medical evidence to support "mind-body" interventions (relaxation, visualization, cognitive therapy and meditation) as outcome modifying therapies.16 Parallel meditation as a therapy to the same understanding of the sage Shimon son of Raban Gamliel who said 2000 years ago, "All my days I have grown up amongst the sages and have found nothing better for the body than silence.dtml-var "cite('17','6')">

Furthermore the conventional approach to pathology can also be understood in terms of the breakdown of the principles of organization described above. Using classical myocardial infarction as an example, where multiple intersystemic interaction such as chronic hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, cigarette smoking and psychosocial factors combine to cause critical decrease in the blood supply to and ultimately death of heart muscle and possibly the human system18 . The decrease in blood supply cuts off oxygen required for metabolism (entropy change) and the resultant infarction often breaks down the conduction system causing arrhythmias and possibly failure and death. Thus there is a breakdown in communication constituent parts, a breakdown in inter and intra-systemic regulation as well as changes to the way entropy is shared and directed. The organizational processes are thus disturbed.

Within the context of psychopathology, aggressive tendencies in some men have been associated with stronger immunity19 (immunity being a complex adaptive system used by the body to maintain its own organization). This suggests that aggression may be understood as increasing entropy and creating disorder in order to maintain the perpetrator's own equilibrium.

The processes of Holism and its counterpart, Disorganization are present at all levels of complexity within the organism from the material to the self conscious. An inter-systemic interdisciplinary approach is tremendously helpful in understanding health, the body and the mind-body interaction.