The Fine Line: (W)holism and Science


There are so many interesting things going on in the world today, especially in the fields dedicated to understanding what human beings are like and how to keep them well. In trying to understand ourselves, we have currently two different models: on the one hand, the scientific reductionist model, and on the other hand, complexity theory.

The reductionist model, which is also generally thought of as the “scientific” approach, reduces everything to its constituent parts, and then studies those parts. It studies the trees instead of the forest, the cells instead of the organs, the DNA instead of the whole being. Molecular biology is a perfect example.

In molecular biology, the hierarchy of who’s in charge goes from the DNA to the person, so that if one has a “defective gene,” that is viewed practically as sentence of disease. In a clear example of how this applies to real life, I once heard a woman, whose husband is a Nobel laureate in one of the life sciences, comment that she couldn’t understand why, if a woman were shown she has the gene for breast cancer, she wouldn’t have a mastectomy immediately.

Complexity theory is a bona fide scientific field as well, although newer and less well known. It grew out of scientists hanging out together in the 1980’s at what is now the Santa Fe Institute and trying to figure out how life works [1]. I consider it pretty close to what we generally call “holistic” or “wholistic” thinking, except that because of its extensive use of math and computers it’s considered scientific. Basically, complexity studies complex adaptive systems, which can be anything from cells to humans to ecosystems to computers. Complex adaptive systems, according to Murray Gell-Mann in The Quark and the Jaguar[2], take in information from their surroundings, detect regularities in the information, build a model of “reality,” and then change and adapt according to that model. In complexity theory, information from a system is “emergent,” that is, it appears as all the parts work together as a whole. Therefore, in this model, the hierarchy is from the whole to the parts; it is the whole that rules, so from this standpoint we study the forest instead of the trees, the organs instead of the cells, the whole person instead of the DNA.

Looking at the way the world works, it is clear that in order to keep balance we need both views. Individuals may prefer one model to the other, and spend their lives working on it, but both sides are necessary for “the whole.” In terms of healing, that must be our main position, because healing is about making whole, about unifying the opposites. And then of course we have “the science,” which is a methodology and a way to study things that carries a lot of credibility. Scientific studies have been used mostly in the reductionistic mode, although for the past few years many studies have been made of “alternative” systems.

In the field of medicine we have these two viewpoints well represented. Molecular biology on the one hand, and complementary/alternative/holistic medicine on the other hand are to be found everywhere these days. In fact, “complementary” is the buzzword, as is “integrative.” This makes me happy! And look around, there are a number of health professionals who integrate the two systems both in their own selves and in their practices. I think we need to become aware of how this paradigm is spreading. Many of us are plugged into Western medicine, but we also like the “alternatives.” It gets confusing at times – when you have a cold, do you go for antibiotics or acupuncture? When you feel under the weather, do you get vitamin shots or Chinese herbs? When should you go for surgery, when not? We need to walk a fine line.

To see how those at the front lines handle the philosophical dichotomy, I asked some of my holistic physician friends the following question. How do you see the relationship between the scientific and the wholistic aspects of your practice?

Joel Evans, ob-gyn and the director of the Center for Women’s Health in Darien, CT, said, “I place the scientific as part of the wholistic, because holistic is an all encompassing perspective in how I treat my patients. What health care and treatment means to me is that I am using the science that we know about medicine, the science we know about herbs, about supplements, about nutrition, the science behind exercise, and the science behind stress reduction, relaxation, group support, and spiritual health. We’ve evolved to the point where there is good science on each of those healing modalities, and I use that science as I work individually with my patients to set up an individual treatment plan for each of them.”

Scott Gerson, a New York City internist who also practices Ayurvedic medicine, answered as follows: “I think that science and the art of medicine have always been close, if not always perfectly comfortable, partners. At times through history they have appeared to be separate, but sooner or later they end up reunited. Today there is a lot of misinformation regarding the efficacy and safety of herbs and other traditional healing systems, for example. Wholistic approaches to health have to be scrutinized carefully from a scientific position. However, it is best that the scrutiny come from those who are familiar with and well grounded in the practice of the wholistic healing arts. Its is this group of people who will have the insight necessary to guide the efforts of scientific investigations. I always view science as a way to appeal to the rational mind of my patients, to make them comfortable with what often seem unusual treatment protocols.”

Larry Palevsky, a pediatrician with a practice at the Beth Israel Continuum Center for Health and Healing, answered the question this way: “I use what I consider good scientific information, properly researched scientific information, as part of the way in which I approach the whole patient. To me, science is only one fourth of the knowledge base that goes into how a patient stays healthy and gets sick. In addition to science, in working with children there is the experience and knowledge of the mother and father as another fourth of the knowledge base. Then there is the parents’ intuition as to how to take care of their child. And the fourth quarter is an unknown way in which information comes to us as a group exchanging information, and something new comes up and we don’t know why. “ This latter comment relates to what I mentioned above, regarding complex adaptive systems: the group of parents, child, and physician become a complex adaptive system and new information emerges from their interaction.

For the practical angle which always closes my columns, here to help you with finding a health professional, medical or otherwise, who suits you, is a short list of holistic healing practices including those mentioned above as well as others. There are, of course, many additional others; at least this is a start. Be well and take care of yourself!


[1].  Waldrop MM. Complexity:  The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York, London: Simon & Schuster; 1992.

[2].  Gell-Mann M. The Quark and the Jaguar:  adventures in the simple and the complex. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company; 1994.