The New Moral Imperative of Holism

Glen T. Martin


There has been a fundamental paradigm shift taking place in the sciences since physicist Max Planck published his “quantum hypothesis” in 1900 and Einstein published his “special theory of relativity” in 1905. Both theories have flourished since that time with ever more corroboration and depth of insight into the nature of our cosmos. The world of the very small (quantum physics) and the vast universe as a whole (relativity physics) together reveal a world integrated at all levels as a dynamic and integrated cosmic whole. The result is that we now understand the universe to be fundamentally different from the paradigm developed by Isaac Newton and early modern science.

This paradigm shift corresponds to an emergent encounter with the reality of the cosmos and our growth toward true human maturity. The astonishing coherence of the cosmos demands a corresponding coherence from us. From this encounter arises a renewed understanding of what it means to be a human being, and a new understanding of the fundamental moral (categorical) imperative that arises from our common human situation. This article attempts to express, as concisely as possible, the nature and origins of this moral imperative and its implications for action in the form of ratification of the Earth Constitution.

Mind and Body

Traditional philosophy, going back to Plato, attempted to understand the relations between mind (capable of discerning intelligible order in the world) from the sensuous experiences of the world around us. What was the relation of mind and matter, inner consciousness and external world? Descartes in the 17th century declared that there were two kinds of finite realities—mind and matter. Mind was non-physical and matter was extended and physical. Subsequent early modern philosophy attempted to define these features of our common experience, or define one of them in terms of the other.

In 20th century thought, this dualism (or reductionism of one into terms of the other) begins to disappear. The holism that emerged from 20th century sciences recognized that mind and matter are just two aspects of one emergent world of pure energy manifesting itself in intelligible patterns. By the mid-twentieth century, major scholarly books began to appear challenging the dualism between consciousness (mind) and unconsciousness (matter). Physicist Amit Goswami affirms that “mental phenomena—such as self-consciousness, free will, creativity…—find simple, satisfying explanations when the mind-body problem is reformulated in an overall context of… [holistic coherence] and quantum theory” (1995, p.11).

Today, such volumes have become commonplace. In the philosophical discourse of the most advanced thinkers, we have moved beyond the early modern mind-matter dilemmas to comprehensive insights into the structure and functioning of the whole of the cosmos—the emergent, evolving dynamic wholeness of all things. The early modern paradigm tended to be atomistic, mechanistic, and deterministic, looking at the universe and human experience in terms of “bodies in motion.”  The contemporary paradigm has abandoned all three of these features attributed to the world.

Mind is no longer a stranger that finds itself self-aware within an alien mechanistic cosmos.  Mind is now an integral dimension of the cosmos itself and our human minds are emergent reflections of the cosmic phenomenon of mind. Quantum physicist Henry P. Stapp concludes: “Thus a radical shift in the physics-based conception of man from that of an isolated mechanical automaton to that of an integral participant in a non-local holistic process that gives form and meaning to the evolving universe is a seismic event of potentially momentous proportions” (2011, p. 140).

Just as the early modern distinction between mind and matter breaks down, so the early modern distinction between the “is” and the “ought” (emphasized by 18th century thinker David Hume and others) breaks down. Mind is teleological. Mind posits values and pursues them according to an “ought.” If mind is now inseparable from the reality of the world studied by science, then so are values.

What is and what ought to be now interface as part of the same, dynamic cosmic reality. Philosopher and cosmologist Errol E. Harris declares: “So far from excluding man and his mind, so far from standing over and against and opposing humanity, as something to be subdued and exploited, nature and mind are to be seen as one—matter and mind fused into a single reality, as body and mind form one person.” (1987, p. 262). Values (moral imperatives) he concludes, emerge from this dynamic holistic reality (ibid. Chap. 14).

Under the quantum theory that has emerged since the early 20th century, not only is mind understood as an emergent aspect of the holistic energy matrix that is our cosmos, mind also plays a role in the “unfolding of reality” (Stapp 2011, p. 6). We are in a reciprocal relationship with the cosmic process—that is, with the evolution of the whole from the Big Bang to the present. Physicist David Bohm writes: “Consciousness and matter in general are basically the same order…. This order is what makes a relationship between the two possible” (1980, p. 264). Pioneer of consciousness-studies Jean Houston concludes that we are “stewards of the earth’s well-being and conscious participants in the cosmic epic of evolution” (in Laszlo, Houston, Dossey 2016, pp. 6-7).

Human Beings Focus the Cosmos

The universe changes us and we change the universe in mutual interaction and coherence. Suddenly human beings are shifted back to the center, a center from which we were seemingly shifted by the Copernican Revolution that declared us peripheral to the center and spinning on a tiny planet going around the true center, at that time thought to be the sun. But with the progress of science, we all but disappeared into an ever-expanding, unimaginably vast cosmos. By the 19th century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out that this shift called into question all previous human value systems: “Since Copernicus, man seems to have got himself on an inclined plane—now he is slipping faster and faster away from the center into—what? Into nothingness? Into a penetrating sense of his nothingness?” (1969, p. 155).

Today, we are back at the center. We understand that we embody the holism of the cosmos, a holism that both animates our consciousness and functions as an intelligible good for human values. In Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence, I wrote:

Holism functions not only as the new paradigm emerging from an entire range of twentieth century scientific discoveries, creative holism also arises from our futurity as an intelligible good, functioning as an ideal of human organization and relationships. As we have seen, our capacity for self-transcendence inherent within our temporal existence allows us to discern intelligible goods and motivates us to seek their realization. Holism as an intelligible good promises the unity of our human project, a cooperative, sustainable world of peace and prosperity, the end to all wars, to hatred, needless fears, and most violence. The oneness of genuine unity in diversity calls to us in the form of a transformed future. (2018, p. 233)

Today, we are beginning to understand that we are co-creators within the process of cosmic evolution. We discern the intelligible good of holism. We are now responsible for that evolution on our planet. Physicist Henry P. Stapp writes: “Thus contemporary orthodox physics delegates some of the responsibilities formerly assigned to an inscrutable God, acting in the distant past, to our present knowable conscious actions” (2011, p. 9). Our conscious actions can counteract the law of entropy which says that all things run down and die. We can enhance the emergent coherence at the heart of the evolutionary process.

The emergent complexity of the world reveals an anti-entropic movement at work. The anti-entropic movement of the evolutionary universe has been to actualize, at ever-higher levels of complexity and consciousness, what physicist David Bohm (1980) calls the “implicate order” of holism implicit in all existent things, what scientist-philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the emergent noösphere (mind-sphere).

If this is so, then it would appear that we are called upon to consciously assimilate that holism (that is also at the awakening core of our being)—act on it, enhance it, develop it, and coordinate it. Here I am using this great metaphor arising from western religions: We are called: “God’s call.” Teilhard writes: “this will open to an advance of all together, in a direction in which all together can join and find completion in a spiritual renovation of the earth” (1959, p.244).

Errol E. Harris declares: “If the implications of the scientific revolution and the new paradigm it introduces are taken seriously, holism should be the dominating concept in all our thinking…. Atomism, individualism, separatism, and reductionism have become obsolete, are no longer tolerable and must be given up” (2000, p. 90). Indeed, as Bohm also points out, “fragmentation” is precisely our problem. This fragmentation (atomism, mechanism, reductionism, and causal determinism) is derived from the early modern paradigm that continues to condition our thinking and our institutions. It lies at the root of our on-going destruction of the planetary environment and our on-going potential for destroying ourselves through weapons of mass destruction possessed by so-called “sovereign” states.

Albert Einstein wrote that our egoism and individualism is “a kind of optical illusion,” a “kind of prison” that “restricts us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.”  However, the awakening to the holism of which we are conscious expressions can allow us to “widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (in Kafatos and Nadau, p. 113). The values that follow from the realization that we are conscious manifestations of the Whole (or God non-anthropomorphically understood) are those of compassion, reconciliation, harmony, coherence, integration, and emergent wholeness.

The reality of the world, come to self-awareness in us, demands of us an “ought,” a “Categorical Imperative,” to promote and create wholeness through actualization of the unity in diversity of all humankind. We discern that we lack coherence among our human species. We are in conflict with the emergent evolutionary universe and with God. Our human situation implies an absolute moral command that admits of no exceptions—a new Categorical Imperative.

The great Indian sage Sri Aurobindo wrote: “The universe and the individual are necessary to each other in their ascent. Always indeed they exist for each other and profit by each other…. [The Universe] creates in itself a self-conscious concentration of the All through which it can aspire” (1973, p. 49). Contemporary Indian thinker Swami Agnivesh speaks of the Vedic insight as “a holistic vision in which all the parts dwell organically within the whole and the whole dwells within the parts” (2015, pp. 13-14). Jean Houston declares that “the infrastructure of the mind mirrors the structures of the universe” (in Laszlo, Houston, Dossey 2016, p. 7).

Harris writes: “The universal principle [God] is necessarily immanent in every part and every phase of the system. It is the alpha and omega of the universe, and without it nothing could be what it is, or happen as it does. Bringing itself to consciousness in our minds, it determines the essential nature of our thinking….” (1992, p. 99). Contemporary interpreter of scientific cosmology Ervin Laszlo writes: ““Through us, the beyond-spacetime intelligence of the cosmos enters the spacetime domain of the universe” (2017, p. 45).

The Fundamental Moral Imperative and Human Maturity

What moral imperatives derive from the discovery of the deep holism of our cosmos, manifest in self-conscious form in us?  We see that the emergent evolutionary universe is creative, whereas, as Stapp declares, under the early modern reductionism the “creative aspect of nature exhausted itself in the first instant.” The classical conception of humans was profoundly “egoistic,” seeing them as self-interested atoms struggling within a mechanical universe for self-interested success. The new image of the self, Stapp writes, is “not as a local isolated automation but rather as a nonlocalizable integrated aspect of the creative impulse of the universe” (in Kitchener 1988, pp. 56-57).

Scholar of transpersonal psychology Ken Wilber (2007) has developed a “psychograph” of human development that sees human moral and cognitive growth proceeding through four main stages (with which many other contemporary thinkers agree). Our proper human development is to grow out of the egocentric orientation of childhood, continue through the ethnocentric orientation of youth, and emerge into the worldcentric orientation of mature adults. Yet the worldcentric orientation itself needs to be transcended into the cosmocentric awareness characteristic of spiritually, morally, and cognitively awake human beings.

Our first task is to grow out of the immature levels into our true human destiny. The full self-actualization of our moral and cognitive potential requires that we become aware of ourselves as conscious embodiments of the cosmic whole. However unique each of us may be within the concrete circumstances of our lives, we share a common humanity and common imperative deriving from the very foundations of existence. Immanuel Kant (1964) called the fundamental moral imperative a “categorical” imperative because it admits of no exceptions.

An immense responsibility emerges from realization of the insight expressed by these thinkers, a new Categorical Imperative, incumbent on us all without exceptions. If our consciousness embodies an “integrated aspect of the creative impulse of the universe,” then how should we be acting in harmony with that impulse? We are tasked to establish the deep reality of true holism everywhere on our tiny home planet. The foundations of existence that have come to focus in our evolving consciousness are neither atomistic, nor mechanistic, nor deterministic. Each of us expresses the creative power of the deep unity in diversity of the whole.

Errol E. Harris has analyzed the concept of holism at length, showing that there cannot be wholes without diversity (1991, Chap. 2). Holism means uniting the parts in a unity that protects their respective diversities and integrates their unique functions within the whole. Our present world is one of immense fragmentation, a fragmentation so extreme it has threatened us for 70 years with nuclear holocaust and for the past 60 years with emerging climate disaster.

We begin to understand that the dominant institutions of our planet are founded on human immaturity, on an outdated paradigm that was atomistic, mechanistic, and deterministic. Capitalism is premised on an egocentric view of human beings as atoms of personal greed and self-interest.  The system of militarized sovereign nation-states is premised on an ethnocentric view of human beings as divided into nearly 200 atomistic and competing national societies. Both views are deeply immature and deeply wrong.

A number of scholars writing on today’s climate disaster have pointed out the role that the atomism and fragmentation of capitalism has had in the creation of climate disaster.  For example,

Joel Kovel. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?

Ian Angus. Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System.

Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate.

James Gustave Speth. The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.

But few scholars have pointed out the tragic role of the system of sovereign nation-states in threatening the end of the world and possible human extinction. One of the few deep thinkers who has done this extensively is professor Errol E. Harris. He first published his analysis of the tragically flawed system of sovereign nation-states as early as 1950 in The Survival of Political Man and has since expanded and developed this analysis in books like Apocalypse and Paradigm (2000), Earth Federation Now: Tomorrow is Too Late (Second Edition, 2014), and Twenty-First Century Democratic Renaissance (2008).  In Apocalypse and Paradigm, he writes:

The most dangerous effects of atomistic and separatist thinking are to be seen in the theory and practice of international affairs. Here the dominating concept is national sovereign independence, a status demanded by every ethnic group and cherished by every national state. The claim of independent national states to sovereignty creates an impasse in world affairs that is seldom diagnosed and presents so serious a problem that discussion of it merits a chapter to itself. Like everything that has been detailed earlier, this persistent way of thinking that independent sovereign states are the only possible and natural political structure for the nations of the world is a hangover in the twentieth century of the world view typical of the seventeenth and succeeding centuries. (2000, p. 52)

The Categorical Imperative is to unite humanity, to promote real unity in diversity, to eliminate war, and to restore and promote the ecological holism of our planetary ecosystem. The present system of sovereign nation-states makes this effectively impossible. It embodies the fragmentation of the early modern paradigm. Nevertheless, a minority of thinkers going back to Immanuel Kant and beyond have already maintained this imperative, and a significant minority of social activists have maintained this since the time of the First World War. However, even many within this movement have not understood the immense Categorical Imperative that defines our human situation.

The majority of these activists who maintained that we need to federate the Earth have often been called “world federalists.” Like the rest of humanity, they have abdicated their responsibility under this Categorical Imperative. They have deferred uniting until some unspecified future date, some date that will almost inevitably postdate the ever-present nuclear holocaust and the cascading collapse of a habitable climate (see Wallace-Wells, 2017). However, you cannot legitimately postpone a Categorical Imperative. It requires effective action in the here and now, without exceptions.

The New Moral (Categorical) Imperative

The new Categorical Imperative is very clear: we must unite NOW, within a binding holistic economic and political framework, for we are facing extinction and the consequent total abdication of our God-given mission to actualize holism on our planet. The new Categorical Imperative demands that we overcome our fragmentation and UNITE as one common humanity and universal civilization. The original Categorical Imperative, formulated by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, remains valid. However, in the 18th century it was impossible to discern the true depth and force of the imperative that would emerge in the 20th century.

The original imperative correctly combined universality and human dignity. It insisted that all valid moral actions in any situation be universalizable, that any rational person should also act as I am about to act. And it insisted that in any situation we should always treat persons as ends in themselves (i.e. as having intrinsic dignity), never merely as a means. Implicit within these principles was the moral goal for society of establishing our human world as a “Kingdom of Ends” in which all people everywhere treated each other morally, as ends in themselves. Kant may have gone as far in the direction of holism and its Categorical Imperative as was possible in the 18th century.

Kant applied this original Categorical Imperative to the system of sovereign nation-states (1957). They did not operate by the Imperative but rather through lawless power-based, “might makes right” relationships. The system of sovereign states was, therefore, immoral and illegitimate. It needed to be replaced by all states joining under a world constitution, “similar to a civil constitution,” in which their relationships became based on the universal laws of humanity and respect for human dignity (hence, ending all war). Kant was clearly on the mark to the extent possible under the fragmentation of the early modern paradigm.

Kant’s understanding, great as it was, remained limited by a paradigm that viewed nature as atomistic, mechanistic, and causally determined, and by the fragmented economic and political institutions deriving from that paradigm. For example, Kant was forced to posit human freedom and reason (necessary if there was to be a Categorical Imperative and the responsibility to live according to its principles) as breaking into the causally determined world from the unknowable ultimate reality of things (which he called the “noumenal” dimension). There was no freedom nor responsibility to be found in the causally determined physical world as he understood it.

Today, with the scientific breakthrough to holism and the revelations of quantum theory, we no long require the positing of a mysterious “noumenal” source of freedom to account for the new Categorical Imperative and our responsibility to fulfill it. Today we know what Kant could not have known. First, we know that everything evolves toward coherence. The world is not a static, fixed reality created deterministically by God as a “giant clockwork” that just keeps deterministically operating until the end of time.

Today, we know that character of the world shortly after the Big Bang was vastly different than later developments, and that subsequently, with each succeeding billion years of its existence, the world has continued to evolve. This process, according to the “Anthropic Principle,” intrinsically led to self-conscious creatures capable of comprehending the whole (see Harris 1991). The universe has emerged into self-consciousness in us. From the very beginning, the development of self-conscious creatures was inherent within the telos of the universal evolutionary process.

Second, today we know that the mind-matter paradox has dissolved, that mind and all other things are vibrations of energy rooted in a quantum matrix of such incredible unity that space and time are transcended. Human freedom is therefore immediately comprehensible, and is integral to the reality investigated by science. Quantum physics has even shown that human decisions influence the reality that emerges in the events we are investigating. Our actions impact everyone and everything around us, like waves on the sea. We become participants (or as now impediments) in the evolutionary upsurge of the cosmos.

Third, today we understand that the deep holism and unity of the universe remain at the root of all things including the immediate mind-body reality of each of us. We are living embodiments of the whole and our emergent freedom is not some cosmic accident to be indulged by immature egos in the service of pleasure, wealth, and power. Our emergent freedom is the culmination of a 13.7 billion-year evolutionary process in which the evolving energy matrix of the cosmos becomes self-aware in us. Evolution now goes beyond the apparently naturalistic mechanisms that produced life. It is now delegated to free beings who have emerged as a self-aware community on the Earth.

We are responsible to continue the anti-entropic process of emergent unity in diversity and produce a holistic “kingdom of God” here on our beautiful home-planet called Earth. The earthly goal of Kant’s first Categorical Imperative to create a Kingdom of Ends on our planet is now magnified ten-fold in the light of the discovery of the holism at the root of all things. We now understand the Imperative to actualize the reality that continues to emerge from the heart of the Cosmos. That holistic principle is focused like a laser beam in human consciousness, waiting to be fully actualized on a planetary scale.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative commanded universality. The new Categorical Imperative, ten-fold more powerful and urgent, commands unity within diversity. It commands us to create a dynamic, holistic reality of unity in diversity that includes the ecological integrity of our planet’s biosphere and the mutual actualization of all the planet’s diverse peoples and nations. We are everywhere the same in our wonderful diversity. Ervin Laszlo concludes that “I am an irreducible and coherent whole with the community of humans on this planet” (2016, p. 122). We are in a position to actualize this Imperative through ratification of The Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

The Constitution for the Federation of Earth

The Preamble to the Earth Constitution is itself a concise statement of the new Categorical Imperative and the action that it demands. It outlines the fact that the old, immature paradigm has brought us to “the brink of ecological and social catastrophe.” It articulates the features of the new holistic paradigm on which the Constitution is based “aware of the interdependence of people, nations and all life.”

The Preamble describes the movement of the new Categorical Imperative from awareness to action:

Conscious that Humanity is One despite the existence of diverse nations, races, creeds, ideologies and cultures and that the principle of unity in diversity is the basis for a new age when war shall be outlawed and peace prevail; when the earth’s total resources shall be equitably used for human welfare; and when basic human rights and responsibilities shall be shared by all without discrimination;…We, citizens of the world, hereby resolve to establish a world federation to be governed in accordance with this Constitution for the Federation of Earth. (2016, p. 70)

Consciousness of the holistic principle at the heart of our human condition declares that we UNITE. We citizens of the world “resolve” to unite. It requires concrete action to establish a world federation to be governed in accordance with the Earth Constitution. At present, we are whole only in potentia, and we become fully whole in actu upon embracing a worldwide constitutional unity. The moral imperative is to become whole.

Moral imperatives are worth little as abstract ideals unless they result in concrete human actions. Even though there are, of course, other options for uniting humanity, there are none so available, widely known in a variety of languages, and already backed by a worldwide organization as the Earth Constitution. There are also no other constitutions so brilliantly designed to unite humanity into a harmonious and effective federation for addressing the entire range of global problems.

 It is a truly amazing document, democratically empowering the people of Earth to address the multiple threats of extinction engendered by the immature capitalist and sovereign nation-state paradigm. It provides a manual for operating Spaceship Earth. And the very act of uniting under this common framework impels human consciousness forward to its higher levels, to a cosmocentric awareness of our common human destiny and responsibility.

Our cosmic destiny is to be the vanguard and stewards of holism on our planet, to foster peace, integration, coherence, sustainability, balance, synergy and fulfillment everywhere on Earth. Our responsibility is to dedicate our lives to the ratification and implementation of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. It embodies the holism that Errol E. Harris declared “should be the dominating concept in all our thinking.” It’s ratification directly manifests that effective and concrete action to UNITE humanity demanded by the new Categorical Imperative.



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