Holism and Reductionism in the Entwined History of Light and Mind

“Quantum holism demonstrates to us the essential holism that pervades our world….But quantum holism only gets us half way to true holism. It does not speak to the holism of human experience. For this we need a new method…” says Arthur Zajonc, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Amherst College and President of the Mind & Life Institute, in this stimulating article.

The history of light is not only concerned with the discovery of increasingly subtle features of our physical universe, but it is also a history of the methods of inquiry and the modes of imagination used by scientists. When in 1300 B.C., the anonymous Egyptian scribe of the Turin papyrus penned the words of Ra, “I am the being who opens his eyes, and there is light; I am the being who shuts his eyes, and darkness falls,” he recorded an experience of light utterly different from that of modern physicists. For the ancient Egyptian, as well as for many other contemporary cultures, light was directly related to the gods and their activity. From the above passage we learn that, for the Egyptian, light was the sight of Ra. It was their god seeing. To stand in the daylight was then to stand within the sight of Ra. The moral and spiritual significance of this view is still palpable.

The intervening years reduced light to mechanical undulations in a hypothetical luminiferous ether, or alternatively to corpuscular emissions careening through space like so many atoms in the void. By the mid-19th century at the hands of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell the “mechanical philosophy” of their predecessors was losing ground. The electromagnetic view they espoused seemed to require no material basis. Instead of an “ontology of matter” light seemed to suggest an “ontology of force.” Physicists such as Hendrik Lorentz suggested that not only light, but perhaps everything should be understood in a manner analogous to light, that is to say, electromagnetically. The long and apparently relentless reduction of light from the activity of the gods to a mechanism in a materialistically-conceived universe, hit an inflection point at this point in time. Brute materialism came under scrutiny. At the dawn of the 20th century two new strands in the story of light emerged, and they both – in different ways – reasserted holism over reductionism. While Max Planck was lecturing at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, not far away Rudolf Steiner was lecturing at the Architektenhaus. These two figures can symbolize for us the two strands of holism that appeared around 1900, which I will term “quantum holism” and “phenomenal holism.” It will be important for our considerations to understand each and differentiate between them.


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