Holism, Fragmentation, and Our Endangered Future: A New Vision and a New Hope

Glen T. Martin



In this essay I present the thesis that the ancient sources of the great world religions were holistic in character, in a form that I call static holism. I then argue that the early-modern world view arising from the Renaissance formulated a new paradigm that was not holistic, but fragmented and atomistic in the extreme. From this paradigm emerged global capitalism and the system of sovereign nation-states, both of which manifest the fragmented and extremely destructive features of the early-modern paradigm. However, in the past century, human beings have scientifically discovered the pervasive holism of the universe, akin to ancient holism but now an emergent holism, that could lead us out of the crises and disasters that we now face on this planet.[i] But the fragmented paradigm, I argue, institutionalized in the nation-state and capitalist world system, blocks transformation to the new holism, and is the primary source of our endangered future. Finally, I try to show what holistic planetary institutions would look like in terms of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, which can serve as a model and blueprint for a redeemed, truly holistic world system. [ii]

Our human future is in great danger. The truth is becoming ever more widely understood. The climate is collapsing, weapons of mass destruction are multiplying and proliferating. We face increasing scarcity of essential planetary resources such as fresh water and fertile agricultural land. The Earth’s population increases by some 80 million persons annually, while the resources necessary to support that population diminish, and what resources remain are appropriated as the private property of the wealthy to the exclusion of the rest.  The nations of the world spend trillions of dollars on militarism and wars while fifty percent of the Earth’s population lives in the hell of extreme poverty. Capitalist globalization ravages the Earth, destroying the environment, extracting wealth for the 1%, and devastating the traditional livelihoods of peoples everywhere. Imperial nation-states blindly pursue wars and militarism in a clearly stupid quest for global empire and imperial domination that flies in the face of these planetary crises.

Ancient Religious and Ethical Holism

Confronted with these disturbing realities, it is imperative to ask where we have been and what resources human civilization has accumulated that might contribute to a transformed future of peace, justice, and sustainability. None of the traditional great religions, for example, condone anything like the conditions described above.  Within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism one finds religiously grounded ethical principles that point to, and demand, a very different future. If not “the kingdom of God on Earth” envisioned by Christianity, each of these ancient holistic religions imagines a possible human future characterized by peace with justice: a world in harmony with the ultimate principle, whether this be Allah, Brahman, Dharmakaya, or the Tao.

Human beings began to move beyond a mythological consciousness and mythological relation to the world during the Axial Period in human history, often identified as the 8th to the 2nd centuries BCE.[iii] In cultures across the world ethical-religious teachers and prophets emerged who experienced the divine as transcendent to the natural world as well as immanent within it.  In Mahayana Buddhism this transcendent-immanent principle was the unsayable Dharmakaya, the Buddha-nature inherent in all things. In Hinduism the unsayable, transcendent-immanent aspects of Brahman, accessible through yoga meditational practices, opened human life to this holistic dimension.

Just as one should live in harmony with the Tao, for Chuang Tzu, so for Confucius, the hidden and manifest holistic principle of all things, humanness (jen), arises from the mutual realization of virtue (te), and social propriety (li). Confucius does not emphasize a transcendent dimension but rather the holistic harmony that nevertheless conforms to “Heaven’s will.” The universal ethical principle expresses the same “Golden Rule” emphasized in all these religions: “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself” (Analects XII: 2).[iv]

Similarly, in Taoism, Thai Shang states that the good person will “regard [others] gains as if they were his own, and their losses in the same way.”[v] For Chuang Tzu: “The inaction of Heaven is its purity, the inaction of earth is its peace…. Heaven and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done”.[vi] The Golden Rule within Taoism arises from the innate holism and harmony of the world—the “inaction” of Heaven and earth. Nothing needs to be done because everything follows holistically from the intrinsic harmony of existence.

The revelation to Arjuna through Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita manifests the Holism of Hinduism and results in an ethical ideal that resonates with those of the other ancient dispensations: “He has compassion toward all creatures and no greed. He knows mildness and humility, and is not fickle in his behavior… He is forbearing, firm, and pure, free from all treachery and conceit”.[vii] In the 6th century BCE, Gautama, the Buddha, denied the Atman, which he apparently took to mean the idea of a metaphysical self-substance (svabhāva) within human beings. Nevertheless, the holism of the mutual interpenetration of all things in emptiness (śūnyatā) actualizes in a similar ideal of human ethical insight: “As a mother cares for her son, all her days, so toward all living things a man’s mind should be all embracing”.[viii]

In the Western religions, the transcendent God is also immanent within the world. This pervasive understanding results in a holism similar in some basic ways to that of the East. When Jesus in Matthew 22 expresses the “great commandment”—“You shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he is expressing the holism of the immanent God within all existence and human life. The love of God for humans (agapē), the love of humans for God (agapē), and the love of other persons (also agapē) arise from this holism: this immense love that informs the cosmos through both its immanent and transcendent dimensions, of which human beings can be directly aware and which can inform or relationships with all others.

For Judaism, Yahweh is immanent in history and the source of a deeply ritualized existence devoted to the realization of His presence and remembrance throughout daily life: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut.6: 5-4). All humans are embraced within this holism as declared in Leviticus 19:11-18: ““You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him… When a stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”

In Islam, according to Islamic scholar Frithjof Schuon, for Islam: “To say ‘God’ is to say… ‘Reality’, ‘Manifestation’, ‘Reintegration’: to say ‘man’ is to say ‘theomorphism’, ‘transcendent intelligence’ and ‘free will’”.[ix]  Schuon affirms that the relation of Allah to humans and the world is one of holism. Transcendence and immanence permeate all things. God is both manifestation and reintegration, and man’s theomorphism aligns him to God. Hence, the ethical dimension manifests this holism: “But it is righteous… To spend your substance, Our of love for Him, For your kin, For Orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, For those who ask, And for the ransom of slaves; To be steadfast in prayer, And practice regular charity, To fulfill contracts Which ye have made”.[x]

The holism of these ancient sources recognizes the oneness of all human beings, their common “humanness” and/or their common “theomorphic” structure. The results in every case translate into ethical principles emphasizing love, compassion, harmony, and doing to others as you would have them do to you. Versions of the Golden Rule are found in every one of these ancient holistic religions.[xi] I should do unto others as I would have them do unto me because I am internally related to the others within the divine holism of the cosmos. My thesis contends that we are recovering holism today on a higher level, so to speak, a level that now integrates the emergent evolutionary dynamic of the universe that has been discovered by all the 20th century sciences.

Early-modern Fragmentation and Defacto Atheism

The Renaissance in the West opened up great promise for humanity through its emphasis on individual creativity, independent thinking in relation to religious dogma, the discovery of the experimental scientific method, and the ability of human beings to systematically apply the results of science to technological innovations and applications. However, the new science of celestial and planetary mechanics, the discovery of universal laws of nature (such as the law of gravitation governing the motion of all earthly and cosmic bodies), and the early emerging ability of microscopes to probe the building blocks of things, resulted in the construction of a world view that contradicted the ancient holisms and led human beings into centuries of fragmentation and misunderstandings of reality.

Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica appeared in 1687, condensing the emerging early-modern world view into a single text, articulating many 17th century views of the world and laying the continuing groundwork for the 18th and 19th centuries’ view of nature and the cosmos. I will discuss this world view under five headings: atomism, mechanism, determinism, deism, and materialism. In doing so, I hope to illuminate some fundamental institutional and paradigmatic flaws persisting in our contemporary world that serve as a fundamental source of our severely endangered future.[xii]

For Newton, the cosmos was a mechanism governed by immutable laws such as the universal law of gravitation. Like Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan appeared in 1651, the world is composed of physical bodies characterized by their motion and mass. The world could be objectively observed by dispassionate minds and was entirely measurable by mathematics. As Galileo had written at the beginning of this century “The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.” The “bodies in motion” that made up the world were assumed to be composed of smaller parts and assumed to be largely independent of one another within the motions that make up the universe. Changes in one body were not likely to affect significant changes in other bodies within the universal mechanism.

John Dalton, in his three volume A New System of Chemical Philosophy that appeared in 1808 constructed the first periodic table of elements, bringing into greater focus the idea that all things could be understood by an analysis of their parts, their atomistic components. In doing this he was inheriting the assumptions of the previous two centuries of early-modern science and further developing the atomism of this era. The world is thus viewed as a gigantic mechanism, consisting of bodies (matter) in motion, and hence made up of separate parts (atomism) relatively independent of one another.

The laws of nature governing this materialistic world determine all events. Universal causality operates everywhere. Immanuel Kant, who largely assumed this 18th century scientific worldview, posited a universal causal determinism for the phenomenal world and was constrained, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) to explain human freedom as breaking into the phenomenal world from the unknowable noumenal world. His solution to the question of human freedom and responsibility underlines the early-modern difficulties in coming to terms with the existence of mind in the world. Descartes in the early 17th century had concluded that mind must be a “mental substance” that was non-extended in space and hence invisible to science and observation. Animals, he thought, were mere automata, since they lacked this invisible substance that distinguished human beings.

These characteristics of the early-modern world view, most significantly mechanism and determinism, resulted in the philosophy of deism. This materialism provided no place for God in the physical world and God was removed from the clocklike workings of the world process to become a transcendent creator who apparently started the gigantic clockwork operating but now no longer interferes in the process. The holism of the ancient religious and ethical visions was lost and the world mechanism was now devoid of the immanence of the transcendent principle. Whatever was left of the ancient idea of God was now related to the world merely as its expatriate creator.

Similarly, the entirely materialistic nature of the deterministic world mechanism appeared to leave no place for the human mind, human sensibilities, and human freedom. Perhaps the mind is entirely non-physical as Descartes had maintained. This solution, however, raised the issue as to how a non-physical substance could interact with, direct, and move the body (which obviously it did) and Descartes could offer no credible solution to this problem. Others, like Hobbes, totalized the materialism and saw the mind as merely an epiphenomenon to the functioning of the body and the brain (which are clearly physical). In either case, mind was a mystery to the early-modern world view.  Reality was what was empirically observable and the mind appeared as a contingent phenomenon characterized by subjective reactions, impulses, and feelings. Objectivity dictated impartial observation not influenced by such subjective feelings and emotions.

This orientation called into question the ethical and religious dimension of human existence.  It looked as if ethical and religious ideas were “merely subjective” and had no factual standing in the “objective” physical world observed by science.  Fact and value appeared entirely different and incommensurable, and value nowhere appeared to have objective status. One of the culminating expressions of this orientation was the philosophy of the Vienna Circle that flourished in the early decades of the 20th century. These positivist philosophers put forward their “criterion of cognitive meaningfulness” in which only empirically verifiable statements were cognitively meaningful. Religious or value statements were then relegated to the status of meaninglessness, or, at best, as having only an “emotive meaning” in relation to human subjectivity.

The result, therefore, is a defacto atheism.  God is either banished from the mechanism as its transcendent creator or God is banished altogether. Belief is considered “merely subjective,” merely cultural, a quaint anthropological curiosity.  Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) proclaims “I have no need of that hypothesis” and David Hume in his Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779) examines the traditional arguments for God’s existence and finds them all unreasonable and illogical. “God is dead,” Nietzsche proclaims in his 1882 book The Gay Science, “and we have killed him.” 

The early-modern world was an inherently fragmented world. It fragmented fact from value. It fragmented the world into multiple autonomous bodies, functioning as atoms and reducible further to their parts. It fragmented the world from God, who was now banished from the independently functioning mechanism, and it fragmented the mind from the body either through a reductionism that reduced mind to body or a dualism that made the mind a mysterious entity with no coherent place in the physical mechanism.  All this might not be so bad, a mere historical curiosity, since humanity has now moved well beyond this early-modern view. However, this fragmentation became institutionalized in two gigantic institutions that continue today to dominate the functioning of the world: global capitalism and the system of sovereign nation-states.

Institutionalization of the Early-modern World View

Capitalism emerged from the medieval feudal system very gradually within the past 500 or so years. One early form was mercantilism in which state power promoted overseas colonial conquests as a means of increasing the wealth of both the mother country and the mercantile class. This form of exploitation and wealth accumulation began to be replaced by industrial capitalism by the mid-18th century, at a time when the early-modern world view discussed above was becoming dominant throughout Europe.  Adam Smith’s classic, The Wealth of Nations, appeared in 1776.

Capitalism as an economic theory conforms to the elements of the early-modern worldview. First it is radically atomistic.  It sees every human being as motivated by “rational self-interest” in which each person tries to maximize his or her profit or well-being through their economic and other interpersonal transactions.  Ignored, of course, is the vast complexity of human motivations and our deeper ethical and religious experiences. People routinely sacrifice for the good of others, mothers, for example, for their children. People routinely do what is right (in Kant’s language) regardless of their inclinations to self-interest.  People often find a meaningful vocation in the service of others, not themselves.

This early-modern atomistic assumption is complemented by an economic theory emphasizing competition among businesses and corporate entities for profit, market share, political influence, etc. Capitalism assumes that individuals (all motivated by self-interest) compete with one another and that businesses do the same.  This is not only “natural” but conforms to “economic laws” considered inviolable.  Hence, laws of the market place, laws of production, scarcity, supply and demand, supplies of labor, capital, and natural resources, are considered the natural condition of human economic life.  The economic world is, therefore, not only atomistic but mechanistic and deterministic, necessarily conforming to these inviolable laws of commerce.

Capitalism also separates fact from value.  It assumes that capitalists may be moral people as individuals. Indeed as Max Weber shows in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930), early Protestant Christianity was a powerful force behind the rise of capitalism. Capitalists may thus separate the institutional arrangements by which they accumulate wealth, for example, the poverty of the wage workers whom they employ, or the necessity of externalizing the costs of production through pollution of the air and water, from their personal moral orientation. They may go to church, give to charity, or exhibit kindness and compassion to other persons, all the while exploiting, degrading, and causing misery through their institutionalized economic relationships.

Today, globally, the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population own half of global wealth and a vast proportion of its income, while the poorest 40% of the global population (some 3 billion people) account for only 5% of the global income and have, essentially, no wealth.  After 500 years of operation, the disparity between rich and poor is greater than ever and continues to increase.  Capitalism is touted by neoliberal ideologues as promoting efficiency and the growth of wealth.  If by “efficiency” we mean efficiency in providing income and well-being to the greatest number of people, then capitalism fails totally. 

If by “growth of wealth” we mean increase in the well-being of the greatest number of people, then it again fails abysmally. Not only is capitalism inherently destructive of human welfare but it is inherently destructive of our planetary environment.[xiii]  Hence, in terms of my analysis, it is atomistic, mechanistic, deterministic, atheistic, and materialistic.  With the rise of scientific holism in the 20th century, we now understand that the doctrines of capitalism are a complete falsification of reality, based as they are on the early-modern paradigm.

The second institution structuring our world today that developed under the early-modern paradigm was the system of sovereign nation-states.  As with economics, this system evolved out of medieval feudal political arrangements, and many scholars identify the Peace Treaty at Westphalia in 1648 as the date when the characteristics of the modern world system were first formally recognized, at least implicitly. A sovereign nation-state (theoretically) is one in which the government  rules autonomously over its own population, while at the same time that government is independent in its external affairs vis-à-vis all other nation-states.

In other words, sovereign nation-states recognize no effective, enforceable law above themselves. Today, the world is divided into some 193 sovereign states, most of them heavily militarized. The world system is structured by an incommensurable atomism: absolute boundaries defended by militarized governments. We have seen that under mercantilism the state was an intentional actor in the accumulation of national wealth.  The same is true under industrial capitalism: the nation-states have always promoted the interests of their capitalist classes and corporations.

As social-scientist Christopher Chase-Dunn express this: “The state and the interstate system are not separate from capitalism, but are rather the main institutional supports of capitalist production relations. The system of unequally powerful and competing nation states is part of the competitive struggle of capitalism, and thus wars and geopolitics are a systematic part of capitalist dynamics, not exogenous forces”.[xiv] Michel Chossudovsky sums up the relation between the nation-state and global economic domination in the World System as this has operated since WWII:

Historically, warfare has been an instrument of economic conquest. U.S. foreign policy and the Pentagon’s war plans are intimately related to the process of economic globalization. The Pentagon is not only in liaison with the State Department, it also has informal ties to Wall Street, the Texas oil giants, not to mention the IMF and World Bank, which have played a key role in the process of destabilizing national economies…. The economic objectives are acknowledged but rarely highlighted as a justification for waging war. The “Global War on Terrorism” supports U.S. corporate and strategic interests. It builds a consensus that America is being attacked by terrorists. It obfuscates what is tantamount to a profit driven military agenda which directly serves the interests of Wall Street, the oil giants, and the U.S. military industrial complex.[xv]

Since the mid-20th century, social-scientists have developed “World Systems Theory” in an attempt to describe the world system as it actually operates. Sovereign nation-states are indeed central to the operations of global capitalism but not as a multiplicity of competing, equal nations each promoting their own capitalist class. Rather the modern world system since the Renaissance has been centered around imperial “Core” nations who have used their military and economic power to control markets, resources, and political arrangements in their own favor vis-à-vis weaker “Periphery” nations who are victims of this system.[xvi] 

Capitalism’s exploitation and domination of the poor by the rich is complemented by the exploitation and domination of the imperial nations over weaker nations. The purpose remains the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the ruling classes with the imperial nations. The means are not only economic pressures, and a system of international debt enforcing subjugation, but the ability of the imperial nations to manipulate foreign elections, support friendly dictators, overthrow resistant governments, or simply militarily invade recalcitrant countries.[xvii]

The supposed iron laws of economics are complemented by the laws of power within a fragmented system of competing nation-states. These “laws” were formulated by theorists from Machiavelli to Hans Morgenthau in his book Politics Among Nations (1948).  The relations between sovereign nation-states, Morgenthau claims, are those of “political realism”—the laws of power politics, the bottom line for which is the use of force, amoral self-interest, wars, and relations of domination and exploitation.

It should be clear, therefore, how and why the system of sovereign nations complements and is inseparable from the system of global capitalism.  The world is divided into the dominators and the dominated, between the exploiters and the exploited. Militarized imperial nations are necessary to maintain this system and protect the exploiters and their ever-accumulating wealth and power. The combination of absolute borders (preventing the free movement of people) and private property relationships (allowing the free movement of capital) create a fragmented world system perfect for domination and exploitation.

Morgenthau’s “six principles of political realism” ignore the inseparable interaction between capitalism and nation-states and formulate the “objective laws” of power politics in a clearly fragmented manner, reflecting the intrinsic fragmentation of the nation-state system (which he never questions).[xviii] We are told that the political realist “maintains the autonomy of the political sphere” while recognizing the similar autonomy of the economic sphere, the legal sphere, and the moral sphere. Human life is fragmented into “autonomous” spheres as if we were not holistically always simultaneously economic, legal, moral, and political creatures for whom such a division is a complete fabrication, and as if a world system had not existed for centuries in which nations struggled to economically compete and promote their capitalist classes. Morgenthau calls this fragmented picture of human life “a pluralistic conception of human nature,” again, without recognizing that the concept of an unchanging human nature has been entirely discredited by leading thinkers, and while entirely ignoring the holistic character of human life and civilization that cannot be pluralistically divided into such autonomous spheres.

The fundamental principle of relations between nations, Morgenthau claims, is “the concept of interest defined in terms of power.”  Each nation pursues its national interests, interests that are defeated or promoted through the exercise of national power. Morgenthau claims that “interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid.”

Like the academic ideological apologists for capitalism, in which their ideology functions more as a religion that a scientific theory,[xix] the ideologues of political realism falsify reality to serve their own interests of power and wealth. All nations, we are told, ignore power politics at their own peril, for it is the universal “law” that governs their relationships. While the state recognizes moral principles, he says, it will follow these exclusively only at its own peril. For the state is “itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.” Hence, for “realism,” morality comes last, if at all.

Generations of imperialist political leaders have followed some version of Morgenthau’s principles in countries around the world, resulting, of course, in the chaos of international crises and relationships that the world currently faces. Morgenthau never questions the division of the world into autonomous sovereign states each acting in its own self-interest. Even though he is writing in the immediate aftermath of two world wars and the invention of nuclear weapons, it never occurs to him that human beings might have universal interests that transcend and negate “national interests.” It also never seems to occur to him that the governments of nations pursing their “national interests” through power politics by and large do not represent the interests of their respective peoples. People everywhere have compelling interests in nourishing food, adequate housing, education, health-care, sanitation, peace, and a decent environment within which to live their lives.  None of these things are served by either global capitalism or the power politics in which governmental elites jockey for satisfying the interests of national ruling classes on the international stage.

The nation-state system is atomistic, mechanistic, and deterministic. We are told that recognizing these as its characteristics is being “realistic”— the way things really are. Its “objective laws of political realism” arise precisely from these early-modern paradigmatic features. Recognizing no law above themselves, and recognizing no universal interests beyond national ruling class interests, the system is fragmented in the extreme. Morgenthau derives his “objective laws” precisely from this fragmentation, and he repudiates moral principles as fundamental to the relations between nations by fragmenting human life into its supposed “autonomous” spheres. 

As with capitalism, the world is fragmented into competing interests, and Morgenthau only vaguely gestures toward a more universal interest much like the fictitious “invisible hand” of Adam Smith in which the competing greedy activities of millions of atoms of self-interest is supposed to miraculously produce the greatest good of the greatest number. Morgenthau assures us that, within the framework of a multiplicity of “political entities pursuing their respective interests defined in terms of power,” a prudent foreign policy will “do justice” to this multiplicity of interests. He suggests in such passages a vague idea that nation-state competition can achieve a balance of these competing interests. However, the historical facts show that both capitalism and nation-state power politics result in absolute winners and losers, and never in “the greatest good of the greatest number.”  Indeed, the absolute winners are the very few and the absolute losers are the vast majority of humanity. These two institutions together, sovereign nations and global capitalism, have defined our world system for the past several hundred years.

And the nation-state system, like its evil twin capitalism, is atheistic, the denial of God through the worshipping of false, human-made, idols. The living God, the God of love, human compassion, justice, and the Golden Rule, the God of holism recognized by all the great ancient religions, simply does not exist within the world system of imperialism, domination, and exploitation, a world of power politics that is institutionalized within a system of absolute territorial borders dividing human beings from one another psychologically, legally, economically, and militarily.  Fact is separated from value, and values are considered “merely subjective,” or “not realistic.” Enrique Dussel describes this structural atheism in terms of the relations of capitalists to those they exploit:

In negating the other, in negating God, sinners are left to themselves. They totalize themselves, asserting themselves as God, fetishizing and divinizing themselves…. The act by which one asserts oneself as the end of other persons—as factory owners think they have a right to the factory’s profit even though that profit be their workers’ hunger transformed into money—is idolatry…. Proprietors of capital forget that all of the value of their capital is the labor of others objectified…. These modern “gods” are the product of the “logic” of sin, of the domination of one human being over another.[xx]

The world’s dominant institutions have carried the false early-modern worldview forward into the 21st century, with disastrous consequences for the world and our common future. The dominant world system is structurally atheistic: it negates God. In terms of the ancient holism of Christianity, this system embodies the “logic of sin.” In the words of political thinker Garry Leech, describing our contemporary world, capitalism is a “structural genocide”—hundreds of millions die so that the few can despoil the Earth and its citizens.[xxi]  Yet this atheistic and patently false worldview has been in the process of being overcome, of being objectively falsified, at least since 1905 when Einstein published his special theory of relativity.

The 20th Century Paradigm-Shift to Holism

Einstein’s theory reveals that which has been corroborated over and over since that time—that the cosmos is a single, integrated whole, that the most distant conditions in the universe could not be altered without altering our local conditions at the same time. Space-time-matter-and energy form a single, indivisible whole. The paradigm shift to holism had begun. Since that time the same holism has been discovered and corroborated at the microcosmic as well as at the microcosmic, quantum level. Physicist Fritjof Capra writes in The Tao of Physics:

Quantum theory has abolished the notion of fundamentally separated objects, has introduced the concept of the participator to replace that of the observer, and may even find it necessary to include the human consciousness in its description of the world. It has come to see the universe as an interconnected web of physical and mental relations whose parts are only defined through their connections to the whole.[xxii]

If the cosmos is a whole at the macro and micro levels, then it only follows that holism would be the fundamental principle structuring everything in between. And, indeed, just this has been confirmed to be the case. The universe and all life is characterized by evolutionary holism. Thinkers like Hans Jonas and Errol E. Harris conceive of the entire cosmic process of evolution from the Big Bang to the development of human consciousness to be one integral process, in which all the stages and developments are related to the fundamental principle of order in the whole of the cosmos.[xxiii]

Similarly, today the understanding that our planetary biosphere is an integrated whole has become commonplace. We cannot cut down the rain forests, pollute the oceans or the air, or continue to interfere with the balance of nature without risking the collapse of the entire system that now supports higher forms of life.[xxiv] Likewise, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have identified both the genetic and civilizational holism of human beings.  We are all one species, and our species-characteristics cannot and do not separate our individual characteristics from our species-being. None of us could be the individuals that we are apart from language, history, civilization, and humanity as a whole.[xxv] The ancient religious-ethical understanding that I am you and you are me is again confirmed by contemporary science.

Finally, religion and ethics have also experienced a massive paradigm-shift to holism. God, or the transcendent, holistic One, is again immanent in all things, and all things are related to one another through internal (not merely external) relationships. Mind is no longer a lost child in a mechanistic universe. The machine model was in error. A better model would be an organic model, but even then the model would have to include cosmic, divine, and evolutionary holism.  Mind, which includes human freedom and responsibility, is now understood to be a “natural” aspect of the evolutionary process, and God or the transcendent dimension is seen to be the guiding immanent principle throughout the entire drama of creation. Jay McDaniel writes:

Even ostensibly inorganic matter, at least at the quantum level, has mind-like properties, meaning that consciousness is an expression of, not an exception to, the kind of energy from which the universe as a whole emerges. There is an ontological continuity between physical energy and consciousness, a continuity of matter and mind.[xxvi]

And philosopher Errol E. Harris declares “If the implications of this scientific revolution and the new paradigm it produces are taken seriously, holism should be the dominating concept in all our thinking.”[xxvii] Thinkers like Leonard Swidler and Paul Moises (and many others) today formulate what they call “Global Ethical Principles” that are amazingly close to those articulated by ancient holism—emphasizing the “oneness” of all humanity, our inviolable common “human dignity,” the Golden Rule, and the role of “love” in binding the whole together in harmony.[xxviii]

Contemporary evolutionary holism again opens up for us the same possibility that animated the ancient religions. Swidler and Moizes write: “The religious conversion means coming to know and love, and therefore truly to become one with, all Reality, not quantitatively, but qualitatively. This means becoming one somehow with its very structure, its Principle”.[xxix]  Holistic thinker Alfred North Whitehead writes of the integrated “process” that is our universe, which involves the self-actualization of God, a God in reciprocity with human beings in which “what is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love of the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world”.[xxx]

In his well-known book on The Stages of Faith (1981), James Fowler identifies the “Conjunctive” stage of religious maturity as the stage in which we recognize that all religions participate in the same transcendent-immanent truth, a truth that transcends the symbol-system encompassed by any one of the religions alone. In Fowler’s highest stage, called “Universalizing Faith,” people become one with all reality in just this way, expressing this enlightened transformation in relation to everyone around them, serving as centers of human liberation. The possibility of an ethically and spiritually informed, decent and humane world system opens up for human beings once again.

Holism, therefore, is not just an ideology expressing some new, subjective cultural paradigm. It has been discovered by science, is intrinsic to all our experience, and can be appropriated as a living ethical and religious transformation by a multitude of persons. The new holism will give us a democratic socialism, a sustainable relationship with nature, and a world system without war, domination, or exploitation. The telos implicit in evolutionary holism is harmony, cooperation, democratic participation, and love.[xxxi] The same is true of economic and political institutions. Economist Herman E. Daly writes:

Homo economicus as the self-contained atom of methodological individualism, or as the pure social being of collectivist theory, are both severe abstractions. Our concrete experience is that of “persons in community.” We are individual persons, but our very individual identity is defined by the quality of our social relations. Our relations are not just external, they are also internal, that is, the nature of the related entities (ourselves in this case) changes when relations among them changes. We are related not only by a nexus of individual willingness to pay for different things, but also by relations of trusteeship for the poor, the future, and other species.[xxxii]

In spite of these insights of the new economics of “persons in community” and ecological sustainability, there remains a tremendous impediment to the actualization of holism in human personal, cultural, religious, or institutional forms, namely, the world-system dominated by capitalism and the system of sovereign nation-states. Unless we unite humanity at a level beyond the nation-states and transform capitalism into an economics that serves humanity and protects the environment, we do not appear to have a future. Harris writes: “The attitude to the natural world encouraged by post-Renaissance science was to regard it as a merely mechanical instrument to be exploited for the benefit of human beings…. Today the effects of this attitude have been to exhaust and destroy the very means that world capital seeks to exploit.”[xxxiii] Regarding nations, he concludes that:

As far as sovereign nations are concerned…Morgenthau also realized that in the international arena “neither science nor ethics nor politics can resolve the conflict between politics and ethics into harmony…. This parlous situation is the direct consequence of the claim to sovereignty of the nations of the world, a claim that…gives unquestioning priority to national interests, especially those regarded as “vital”, namely, first and foremost, security from foreign aggression, and secondly economic prosperity.[xxxiv]

The major economic and political institutions of our world are predicated on an irremediable fragmentation that defeats the conversion to holism at every turn. The root causes of our global crises endangering the future of civilization are not some unchanging “human nature” as Morgenthau claims. As Karl Marx pointed out in the 19th century, what appears as an unchanging human nature is most basically the “social relations of production” as these influence the behavior of persons dominated by these institutions. People objectify their behavior, conditioned by the dominant institutions, as if it were a fixed human nature. Our emerging, malleable human project, replete with many possibilities, will actualize its fundamental telos of holism, harmony, and integration once these fragmented social forms have themselves been converted to holistic institutions.

It should be clear that the religious and ethical holism of the great world religions can only inform human life and civilization if the world system is itself transformed to holism.  Both capitalism and the sovereign state system block the ascent to holism in the majority of the population. Capitalism breeds greed, lack of compassion, and hardness of heart, while the nation-state breeds false patriotism, blind loyalty, lust for power, and mindless obedience to illegitimate authority. Both systems encourage structural atheism, people believe they are loyal to God, the Tao, or Buddha-nature, but they are in truth worshipping idols: the idols of capital or nation-state power.

System Transformation to Holism

The structure of a holistic world system will necessarily include unity in diversity. Every whole is a whole of integrated parts. Every whole is a unity in diversity. The present world system is an atomized system of incommensurable diversities, with a spurious unity imposed by the system of economic and political domination. But we have seen that civilization itself is a whole, and humanity as a species is a whole, from which it is impossible to separate out autonomous individuals as if they could somehow exist without the whole of humanity presupposed. As early as 1941, this principle was understood by many leading intellectuals and thinkers who understood that democracy had to be a worldwide federal democracy or it could not be effective at all:

Diversity in unity and unity in diversity will be the symbols of federal peace in universal democracy. Universal and total democracy is the principle of liberty and life which the dignity of man opposes to the principle of slavery and spiritual death represented by totalitarian autocracy. No other system can be proposed to the dignity of man, since democracy alone combines the fundamental characteristics of law, equality, and justice.[xxxv]

If we are going to overcome the fragmentation of the early-modern world system and its horrific consequences for humanity and the environment, then we will have to move beyond the lawless system of sovereign nations to the worldwide rule of democratically legislated law.  Authentic democracy is intrinsically holistic. It means a system in which the welfare of all is the focus of decision-making and governmental authority. In today’s world authentic democracy cannot exist because a government representing only its own people is by that fact placing their welfare in opposition to that of the rest of humanity.

Democracy, U.S. philosopher John Dewey writes, is “equivalent to the breaking down of the barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.”[xxxvi] It involves seeing “the secondary and provisional character of national sovereignty” and emphasizing the superior value of the democratic ideal in which “the fuller, freer, and more fruitful association and intercourse of all human beings with one another must be instilled as a working disposition of mind.”[xxxvii]

Humanity is a whole, civilization is a whole, and the biosphere is a whole. Economic and political institutions that recognize, protect, and promote these holisms must be planetary institutions beyond the level of sovereign nations.  Like the sarvodaya of Mahatma Gandhi, the holism of democracy means the welfare of all. The welfare of all (peace with justice) can only be achieved if the nations are disarmed and if disputes are settled democratically through mediation, voting procedures, or friendly dialogue.  Likewise, the welfare of all with respect to ecological sustainability can only be achieved through a planetary system that monitors the many interdependent factors comprising our biosphere and legislates good laws to protect and restore that ecological holism. Harris writes:

If human and other living beings are to survive the coming century, it is essential that we should learn to think holistically. The twentieth-century scientific paradigm must become intrinsic to the millennial outlook, and the millennial objective ought to be the initiation of unified global organization. The unity of humanity should be the watchword of the new epoch, inspiring all our thinking and action. It is essential to stress the unity of the whole in and through difference. In all local action the global perspective has to be kept firmly in mind.[xxxviii]

Our consciousness and our institutions are reciprocally related to one another. And, according to the principle of holism on which the universe is constructed (articulated here by numerous thinkers) the uniting of humanity under democratic world law would engender a qualitative leap: the whole is more than merely the sum of its parts and new qualities would emerge with the wholeness of human institutions and consciousness that would be very powerful, liberating, and would give us our best prospect for a world based on peace, justice, and sustainability.

Human beings have created only one document thus far in history that really addresses both these requirements for a holistic world system—the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.[xxxix]  Both the unity in diversity of humanity and the sustainable holism of the planetary ecosystem are woven into every paragraph of that document.  The Preamble to the Constitution announces the holism of the document and its sustaining philosophical framework—“Aware of the interdependence of people, nations, and all life.”  This is a declaration of holism that could not be clearer: there is no such thing as autonomous independence from the rest of humanity, from the other nations of the world, or from the natural world.

The next four paragraphs in the Preamble address the consequences of the older fragmented paradigm: we are at the “brink of ecological and social catastrophe”; we are aware of the “total illusion” of “security through military defense”; we are aware of the terrible consequences of the global economic system that causes “ever increasing disparity between rich and poor”; and we are aware that we need to save humanity “from imminent and total annihilation.” All these are caused by the older, dysfunctional world system of autonomous sovereign nation-states and a flawed, class-controlled economic system operating in coordination with this nation-state system.  The seventh paragraph of the Preamble again returns to the new paradigm announced in paragraph two:

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.

The statement of holism from paragraph two is here spelled out in greater detail. The “diverse nations, races, creeds, ideologies and cultures” of the world no longer mean incommensurable fragmentation, war, and conflict. They are united within this Constitution under a “principle of unity in diversity” that is the basis for this “new age” of peace, justice, protection of rights, and assumption of mutual universal responsibilities by the people of Earth. The integrated ability of the Earth Federation government to deal with our climate crisis must be understood in terms of this fundamental paradigm-shift from fragmentation to holism.

It is important to point out that the Preamble expresses its holism (correctly) as the “principle of unity in diversity.”  This intrinsic relations between whole and parts is the fundamental principle of holism, as the authors of The City of Man quoted above had already understood. The scientific revolution that has placed holism at the center of all processes within the universe understands that a holistic system is qualitatively different from a system of fragmented autonomous parts. 

In a holistic system the unity in diversity means that the whole functions well because of the parts and the parts function well because of their integration into the whole. The uniqueness of the parts (diversity) is absolutely essential to the proper functioning of the whole.  Throughout the universe, and throughout the ecosystems of the Earth, there are no wholes without diverse interacting, symbiotic parts. It is the same with the holism of the Earth Federation government under the Earth Constitution, the whole is systematically designed to be the function of a diversity of interacting parts.  In this government, there is simply no whole without these diverse parts.  An integrated human community is assured.

There is an analogy with the power of health, for example, in a human body when all the organs are functioning and integrated into a harmonious whole.  Parts and whole working cooperatively together create health in living things, in natural systems, and in the planetary ecosystem. Fragmentation in all these dimensions means death. Similarly, social fragmentation means war and violence, domination and exploitation. The power generated by social holism and world-system holism transforms these negative consequences into a synergistic flourishing of the whole with the harmonious integration of all its parts.  This is what social power is and should be—the power of a genuine human community. The democratic function of the human community as the integration of unity in diversity will reflect the same holism that we seek to preserve for the biosphere of the Earth.

If we want to survive the 21st century, if we want a future for our children and their children, we will need to convert the world-system to holism.  The revival of ethical and religious holism, as compelling as it may be, will not be enough to overcome the systematic, militarized fragmentation and violence of the sovereign nation-state system and global capitalism. The Earth Constitution sets up global public banking—money creation and backing directed not to private profit or financial speculation but to serve the needs of every person on Earth for housing, healthcare, sanitation, nourishing food and clean water. These features are integrated into the world economic and political system under the Constitution, establishing a holism in which “the earth’s total resources shall be equitably used for human welfare.”

The Constitution sets up a democratic World Parliament representing the people of Earth directly in the House of Peoples, serving the nations of the world (no longer sovereign or militarized) in the House of Nations, and representing the whole of the Earth in the House of Counsellors.  Similarly, the World Court system is staffed by justices representing the common good of the people of Earth, as does the World Administration, the civilian World Police, and the World Ombudsmus (protecting human rights worldwide).  It establishes a holistic world system under which religion and ethics will be able to flourish unimpeded. Indeed, the fundamental holism of both ancient and contemporary religion and ethics is manifested in the Earth Constitution.

Converting the world system to this constitution, which could be done as easily as replacing the UN Charter with this document, appears as the only practical and rational way to move into a decent future for the Earth. Article 17 of the Constitution spells out the criteria for democratic ratification, bringing the Earth Federation into legitimate force and reality. The process is divided into three stages, making it practical and relatively easy to accomplish. Article 19 of the Constitution gives the people of Earth the right and duty to initiate the elements of world government, such as the Provisional World Parliament, even before the ratification process is complete.

My forthcoming book One World Renaissance: The New Transformative Holism and Our Global Social Contract (2015) spells out the themes of this article in much greater detail. It shows in depth in what ways the Earth Constitution (or a global social contract very much like it) is in fact a presupposition of the newly discovered holism of humanity and civilization. If we want a future on this planet, we must abolish both capitalism and nation-state sovereignty and bind the people of Earth together in a global social contract—a contract premised on the principle of unity in diversity—on the new transformative holism.


[i]   Glen T. Martin (2008). Ascent to Freedom: Practical and Philosophical Foundations of Democratic World Law. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

[ii]  These issues are treated much more extensively in my books. For holism, see especially my forthcoming One World Renaissance: The New Transformative Holism and Our Global Social Contract (2015).

     Please note: Because I want to keep this essay within easily readable length limits, it will necessarily cover several very broad topics in a summary fashion. I realize that much more should be said about each of these topics both to fully illuminate my thesis and to adequately corroborate the points being made. However, a shorter overview can be valuable in many ways, such as presenting the general thesis in a brief and compelling manner. The brevity of this presentation should not prevent the reader from consulting the sources listed in the notes and from independently pursuing the issues raised in greater depth.

[iii]  Karl Jaspers (1953). The Origin and Goal of History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[iv]  Much of the material in this section is from Chapters 17 and 18 of John Hick (2004). An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. For Confucius see: Herbert Fingerette (1972). Confucius—The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper & Row.

[v]   Ibid. Hick (2004): 313.

[vi]  Chuang Tzu (1964). Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. Burton Watson, trans. New York: Columbia University Press: 112-13.

[vii]  Hick, op.cit.: 317.

[viii] Ibid.: 313.

[ix]  Frithjof Schuon (1963). Understanding Islam. London: George Allen & Unwin: 13.

[x]  Hick, op.cit.: 324.

[xi]  Ibid.: 309-314.

[xii] For further discussion of this see my Triumph of Civilization: Democracy, Nonviolence, and the Piloting of Spaceship Earth (2010). Also Errol E. Harris (2000). Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Life. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

[xiii] See John Bellamy Foster, et. al. (2010). The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[xiv] Christopher Chase-Dunn (1998). Global Formation: Structures of World Economy. Updated Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield: 61.

[xv]  Michel Chossudovsky (2010). “War and the Economic Crisis” in The Global Economic Crisis – The Great Depression of the XXI Century, Michel Chossudovsky and Andrew Gavin Marshall, editors: 181-190.

[xvi]    See Thomas Richard Shannon (1989). An Introduction to the World-System Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[xvii]   See Michael Parenti (2011). The Face of Imperialism. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

[xviii] Hans J. Morgenthau (1978). Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Fifth Edition, Revised. New York: Alfred A. Knopf: 4-15. Also found on-line at https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/morg6.htm.

[xix]   See Robert H. Nelson (2001). Economics as Religion: from Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

[xx]    Enrique Dussel (1988). Ethics and Community. Robert R. Barr, trans. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books: 19-20.

[xxi]   Garry Leech (2012). Capitalism: A Structural Genocide. London: Zed Books.

[xxii]  Capra, Fritjof (1975). The Tao of Physics. Berkeley: Shambala Press: 142.

[xxiii]  Hans Jonas (1984). The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  Errol E. Harris (1988).The Reality of Time. Albany: State University of New York Press. See also Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (1992). The Universe Story – From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

[xxiv]  James Gustave Speth (2005). Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[xxv]  Donald E. Brown (1991). Human Universals. New York: McGraw Hill.

[xxvi]  Jay McDaniel (2005). Gandhi’s Hope: Learning from Other Religions as a Path to Peace. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books: 51.

[xxvii]  Harris (2000), op.cit.: 90.

[xxviii] Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes (2000). The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.          See also Hans Küng (1991). Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. New York: Crossroad.

[xxix]  Ibid. Swidler and Moizes: 118.

         [xxx]   Alfred North Whitehead (1978). Process and Reality. Corrected Edition. New York: Macmillan: 351.

[xxxi]   Harris (1988), op.cit.: Chapter VIII.

[xxxii]   Herman E. Daly (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press: 55.

[xxxiii]  Harris, op. cit.: 48-50.

[xxxiv]  Errol E. Harris (2008). Twenty-first Century Democratic Renaissance: From Plato to Neoliberalism to Planetary Democracy. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press: 122-23.

[xxxv]   Herbert Agar, Christian Gauss, Frank Aydelotte ,Oscar Jiszi, G. A. Borgese, Alvin Johnson, Hermann Broch, Hans Kohn, Van Wyck Brooks, Thomas Mann, Ada L. Comstock, Lewis Mumford, William Yandell Elliott, William Allan Neilson, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Reinhold Niebuhr, Gaetano Salvemini (1941). The City of Man: A Declaration on World Democracy. New York: Viking Press: 27-28.  On-line at: http://zeitwort.at/files/the-city-of-man.pdf.

[xxxvi]   Dewey, John (1993). The Political Writings. Debra Morris and Ian Shapiro, eds. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.: 110-11.

[xxxvii]   Ibid.: 120.

[xxxviii]  Harris, op.cit.: 132.

[xxxix]   Glen T. Martin, ed. (2010). Constitution for the Federation of Earth. With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.  See also www.earth-constitution.org and www.worldparliament-gov.org and www.worldproblems.net. The next few paragraphs quote from my book Anatomy of a Sustainable World: Our Choice Between System Change and Climate Change (2013). Appottamox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.