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1. From the European 'technocracy site' [1]:

"The word "holon’’ comes from the Greek "holos, meaning 'whole', and "-on, meaning 'part'. The word aptly captures the duality of entities which are at once single, distinct en­tities, and at the same time parts of a more comprehensive whole. For exam­ple, a cell in your body falls under the holon category. Cell exists as a distinct, living entity; it has inputs, out­puts, and a distinct cell wall defining its interface with the rest of the world. A cell, however, consists of smaller and more fundamental parts, such as RNA, DNA, mitochondria etc. Each component can be studied as a separate entity; however, each component can be broken down further - into molecules, atoms, and ultimately to quarks. This decomposition of cells is characteristic for a holonic organisation.

We can also go the other way, and see that cells group togeth­er with other cells to become organs. Organs, in turn, form parts of the human body. Here, we see that holonic organisation also supports composition as well.

We can find many other examples of this part-whole relation­ship in the world around us. Ants, for example, exhibit such characteristics. We can study ants as separate entities in their own rights; but, they also form parts of a society. Trees and forests as well as people and cities form other examples. More artificial examples would include agents that have been used in Distributed Artificial Intelligence and even the humble sub routine in a program."


2. From the Wikipedia:

"A holon is a system (or phenomenon) that is a whole in itself as well as a part of a larger system. It can be conceived as systems nested within each other. Every system can be considered a holon, from a subatomic particle to the universe as a whole. On a non-physical level, words, ideas, sounds, emotions—everything that can be identified—is simultaneously part of something, and can be viewed as having parts of its own, similar to sign in regard of semiotics.

Since a holon is embedded in larger wholes, it is influenced by and influences these larger wholes. And since a holon also contains subsystems, or parts, it is similarly influenced by and influences these parts. Information flows bidirectionally between smaller and larger systems as well as rhizomatic contagion. When this bidirectionality of information flow and understanding of role is compromised, for whatever reason, the system begins to break down: wholes no longer recognize their dependence on their subsidiary parts, and parts no longer recognize the organizing authority of the wholes. Cancer may be understood as such a breakdown in the biological realm.

A hierarchy of holons is called a holarchy. The holarchic model can be seen as an attempt to modify and modernise perceptions of natural hierarchy.

Ken Wilber comments that the test of holon hierarchy (e.g. holarchy) is that if a type of holon is removed from existence, then all other holons of which it formed a part must necessarily cease to exist too. Thus an atom is of a lower standing in the hierarchy than a molecule, because if you removed all molecules, atoms could still exist, whereas if you removed all atoms, molecules, in a strict sense would cease to exist. Wilber's concept is known as the doctrine of the fundamental and the significant. A hydrogen atom is more fundamental than an ant, but an ant is more significant."

(cited by http://www.bordalierinstitute.com/NeuralNetworkNaturePart1of3.pdf)

3. From Jan Krikke:

"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.

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 ??? (missing part ?)

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."



Individual holon

"An individual holon possesses a dominant monad; that is, it possesses a definable "I-ness". An individual holon is discrete, self-contained, and also demonstrates the quality of agency, or self-directed behavior. The individual holon, although a discrete and self-contained is made up of parts; in the case of a human, examples of these parts would include the heart, lungs, liver, brain, spleen, etc. When a human exercises agency, taking a step to the left, for example, the entire holon, including the constituent parts, moves together as one unit.

Social holon

A social holon does not possess a dominant monad; it possesses only a definable "we-ness", as it is a collective made up of individual holons. [4] In addition, rather than possessing discrete agency, a social holon possesses what is defined as nexus agency. An illustration of nexus agency is best described by a flock of geese. Each goose is an individual holon, the flock makes up a social holon. Although the flock moves as one unit when flying, and it is "directed" by the choices of the lead goose, the flock itself is not mandated to follow that lead goose. Another way to consider this would be collective activity that has the potential for independent internal activity at any given moment."



of Holons and Holonic Systems:

"In addition to the part-whole characteristic, holons have a number of other characteristics:

01: Each holon can function autonomously. It means that each holon carries out its own activities without the direction of oth­er holons; yet, it still forms a part of, and contributes to, the overall functioning of a larger system.

02: Holons naturally form distributed systems. This comes on from the autonomous attribute.

03: Each holon has a simple, singular task to perform and con­centrates exclusively on that task. The system accomplishes larger scale tasks through the combination of a number of holons, either through combining them together to form a larg­er holon, or through cooperation or competition between holons.

04: Although holons function autonomously, their interaction with other holons may yield complex flows of information in order to achieve each interacting holon’s goals. Therefore, a holon must process and respond to in-bound data from exter­nal sources, as well as provide other holons with requested information.

05: As holons interact, the sum of their actions could become greater than the action of the individual holon. Some exam­ples could include ant hills, where a number of ants cooperate to construct a mound, yet no single ant would have the capa­bility to achieve the construction individually. The construction of cities forms another example. The shapes of many of the world's cities were not the result of centralised plan­ning. Nonetheless, the organisation and interaction of a num­ber of people and organisations has resulted in some of the most spectacular cities on Earth, such as San Francisco, New York, Rome, and others.


The Advantages of Holonic Systems

Holons are particularly well suited for complex and/or dis­tributed systems. Some reasons follow:

  • Scalability As each holon has the property of being au­tonomous, it can function with little or no knowledge of other holons. Thus, we can add additional holons to the system, de­pending on the system in question, without affecting the oper­ation of the previously existing holons. As additional holons are contributed to the system, a coherent organisation will tend to form naturally, such as a hierarchy where higher-lev­el, more abstract holons manage lower-level, more detail-ori­ented holons. Consider, as another example, any plant or ani­mal, which starts as one cell, but which divides and grows to many cells, forming organs along the way.
  • Robustness Robustness also results from the autonomous na­ture of a holon. Just as we can add holons, we can also re­move them without, in general, affecting the functioning of other holons or the system as a whole. For example: human body can lose many cells without even noticing it. It can even survive the loss of a substantial por­tion of the body, such as a limb.
  • Simplicity of control As each holon has a simple, usually singular, task to accomplish, it only needs a simple control mechanism, which can be understood more easily when compared to a centralised control system.

Disadvantages of Holonic System

Distributed and autonomous holons, for all their advantages, also have some disadvantages compared to centralised mechanisms.

  • Tragedy of the commons The autonomous attribute can lead holons to consume shared resources without consideration for others, and end up taking more than their fair share. This could limit the ability of other holons to work, and may even bring an end to the common resources. Example: a farmer allowing his cow to eat all the common grass, preventing other farmers from grazing their cattle.
  • Losing their way We can see another problem with the autonomous attribute. Autonomous holons could conduct activi­ties that do not contribute to the overall goal of the system. They could even conduct activities that are contrary to the overall goal. Cancer cells would form an example of holons that have gone out of control and became a danger to the sys­tem as a whole.

The root cause of the first deficiency we can usually at­tribute to a lack of negative feedback in the holon’s opera­tion. For example, if the farmer knew a priori of the impact the cow would have on the field, and therefore other farmers, he would take steps to alleviate the problem before it got out of hand. The farmer would need a bigger picture to achieve this in­sight. However, this leads to one possible solution, where a higher-level holon could administer lower-level holons. Not an ideal situation. It is pre­ferred that the other farmers communicate with the offending farmer, so that issues are resolved locally and quickly.

We may, however, have diffculty understanding the cause for the latter deficiency, since there is a number of issues to consider. For in­stance, simple miscommunication or misunderstanding may result in an erroneous interpretation of the holon's goal. Indeed, scientists have traced most causes of genetic defects that, in a sense, we can consider as miscommunication in genetic programming of the cell. We could see another cause as the autonomous nature of the holon, which could deliberately decide to change its own goals. The "bait-and-switch’’ manoeuvre that con-artists and other petty criminals use exemplify this."



Ken Wilber's Holarchies

Jan Krikke:

"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."


Do Holons Have Consciousness ?

Jan Krikke:

"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)."


More Information

  1. Hierarchy and Holarchy
  2. Hierarchy of Living Systems in Living Systems Theory


Graham Brendan Dempsey [2]:

  • "Tyler Volk’s 2017 book Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be dubs this process “combogenesis,” and posits a “grand sequence” of nested wholes that lead, well, from quarks to culture.
  • As early as 1976, though, Arthur Koestler coined the word “holon” to refer to such entities as constitute a whole at one level and a part at a higher level: a whole-part (see The Ghost in the Machine, 1976). Such holons build on one another, forming a nested hierarchy or “holarchy.”
  • This model would become key for the integral theory of Ken Wilber, who develops an entire holarchic metaphysics, a universe of “holons all the way down,” etc. (see Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, pp. 23-85)."