Education, Science

The Frontier of Science and Education

Excerpts from The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal

Emerging Wholes – Expanding Our Worldview

The end of reductionism

Since Galileo, science has had a bias towards simplification for the very sensible and practical reason that it was all it could handle. Nothing is wrong with this as long as the limitation of the method is not projected onto reality, limiting it. If all you have is a thermometer, then everything is a temperature. But we now know that analysis of climate, the human nervous system, economics and ant colonies, to mention only four examples, resist such simplification. To understand them with any subtlety requires that we embrace their inherent complexity and work with it. Until the last few decades, the exclusive method of studying complex systems was to break them down into fundamental parts and then to connect neighboring parts by means of simple forces. The forces between these distinct parts bind them into wholes. The whole is a mere amalgam of conjoined parts that has no ontological standing of its own. The solar system, in this view, comprises a star (the Sun), planets, asteroids, comets and the like, all held together by the force of gravity acting between them. The atom likewise consists of a nucleus and surrounding electrons bound together by an electromagnetic force. This lens is then extended to chemistry, biology and the human being. The parts are considered to be ‘real,’ as are the forces that make connections between the parts, but the whole – be it mineral substance, plant, animal or human – is a kind of chimera. While such a view is useful in many instances, we now know it to be fundamentally mistaken. Two scientific developments – entanglement and emergence (as well as common sense) – have made this conception of the world obsolete.


The first breakthrough came when physicists were able to attend to two things at once. This may sound simple, but to simultaneously measure the subtle properties of two or more quantum particles required a significant increase in resources and experimental sophistication. The simplest experiment of this type was first suggested in 1935 by Einstein, Rosen and Podolsky, but it had to wait until the 1980s for a definitive test. Light not only has the properties of intensity and color, but it can also have an internal orientation. If thought of as a wave, then the vibration can be up and down or side to side. These two different orientations of vibration are called polarizations. When physicists measured the correlations between the polarizations of photon pairs, the patterns in the data could not be explained by any classical conception of light. (The quantity measured is a complex correlation function for the probability of simultaneously detecting two photons at a particular polarization angle relative to one another.) The results were astounding, not because they required a new physical theory (quantum theory was adequate to the task), but because of their ontological implications. Here was a potential metaphysical experiment, and it demonstrated convincingly that the understanding we had of wholes, as merely parts juxtaposed and bound together by forces was wrong. In a crucial manner, when two particles interact, they form an inseparable whole and the very attributes by which we would normally distinguish the one from the other become, as physicists term it, ‘entangled.’ The two participles form a whole that is as real as the parts. Parts are no longer privileged.

I think it symbolic that wholes only showed themselves when physicists learned to attend to two things at once. The old practice of attending first to one thing (planet or particle) and then to another fragmented the world into parts. We were unconsciously practicing a particular kind of attention. The Universe was and is a whole, but the method by which we chose to observe the universe fragmented it, and we mistakenly assumed our method gave us a true reflection of reality. In the process of learning how to attend to the whole, we learned that the experimental context and our kind of attention are highly significant: they cannot be excluded as inconsequential.

As we have seen already, our method of inquiry shapes, in part, the phenomena themselves, and it is only these phenomena to which we have access. If we attend to separate parts, that is what we see. If we are interested in wholes and devise an experimental method suited to that interest, then wholes show themselves. This is no more relativism or pure constructivism, but rather an example of the world’s richness that reveals itself in stages in response to us and our properly posed questions.

The best known physics example of the relationship between question and phenomenon is wave-particle duality. If the question we pose is “where is the photon?”, then light shows itself as a particle. If, however, we do not ask ‘where?’ but allow for an ambiguous trajectory for light, then the resulting observed interference pattern can be understood in terms of light as a wave. These contradictory manifestations of light – first particle and then wave – arise in response to the experimental arrangement, which itself is the embodiment of a question. Classically considered, wave and particle are mutually exclusive concepts, but in quantum mechanics each aspect arises within a distinct measurement context and so it is entirely appropriate to that specific context. Context trumps consistency. The context in which we examine light fundamentally shapes the phenomenal manifestation as well as our conception of light in that context.


The second scientific development that supports the overthrow of reductionism is emergence. If we turn in our imagination to walk along a lively forest stream, or if we listen to a Mozart aria we know well, it seems clear that our life is not made up of atoms and neurons but of a dense, rich array of meaningful experiences. What are the relations between the parts so often at the center of the scientist’s attention and the experience of wholes that occupy the rest of us? While the fact of quantum entanglement is a principled block to reductionism, a second scientific realization grants added weight to the status of wholes. Briefly put, scientists now recognize that the qualities that emerge in complex systems are often not able to be reduced to the parts that make up the system. Hydrogen and oxygen are the elemental gases that make up water, but the ‘wetness’ of water is the ’emergent property’ of the system not reducible to hydrogen and oxygen.

In a seminal paper aptly titled “More is Different,” the Nobel physicist Philip Anderson stated, “At each level entirely new properties appear . . . . Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry . . . . We can now see that the whole becomes not merely more, but very different from the sum of its parts.” Nobel physicist Robert Laughlin put it another way: “We live not at the end of discovery but at the end of a Reductionism, a time in which the false ideology of human mastery of all things through microscopics is being swept away by events and reason.” Reductionism is, indeed, a false ideology. While we surely learn a great deal by attending to microscopic parts, we must be careful not to fall in love with the myopic view that mode of analysis offers. We must complement it with an equal attention to relationships and wholes. Only then will we truly behold the painting, appreciate the mind, and understand the complex reality that is the ecosystem. Only then can we arrive at a pedagogy that sees students as whole and complex beings and educates students with an eye to this reality.

Beyond objectification: A relational view of reality

In summary, I have used science to expand our worldview beyond a reductive materialist ontology in two ways. First, Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics both undermine objectification and support a relational view of reality in which phenomena are co-created by the observer and the world. Second, through entanglement and emergence, physics offers evidence for an ontological holism that grants wholes a standing long denied them. Parts are no longer privileged. These two realizations are essential to a proper philosophical infrastructure for higher education.

Enriching Epistemology, Fostering Imagination

The wish to comprehend leads us to develop methods of inquiry directed toward reliable knowledge. If the methods we possess are fragmentary or partial, then our knowledge will be likewise. In this way, we see that an expanded ontology requires an enriched epistemology. The richness of the world will not reveal itself by a single means of inquiry. Not only are many questions required, but they must be posed and explored in different ways, each one of which illuminates the world from another direction, inner as well as outer.

Imagination: knowing by becoming

Let us return to and dwell a little longer on the illusive human capacity of imagination so central to a vital and genuine university. Ralph Waldo Emerson described imagination as profoundly participatory: a knowing by becoming. “Imagination,” he wrote, “is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees.” The intellect of the inquiring individual shifts the locus of its activity from itself into the other. Through imagination, the mind finds a way of living “for a time beyond itself, becoming where and what it sees.” Evelyn Fox Keller characterized biologist Barbara McClintock’s method as ‘learning by identification’ so that the object she was studying (maize) became a subject.

The epistemology of imagination rejects objectification and distancing and instead practices what we might term subjectification and intimacy. This is McClintock’s “intimacy that does not annihilate difference.” It is a patient, contemplative method that seeks to hear what the material has to say to you, and through which one achieves a feeling for the organism. In an address to young Harvard biology students, McClintock urged them to “take the time and look,” but as her biographer Keller rightly commented, today “the pace of research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance.” Yet it is precisely this contemplative stance that is essential to an integrative and imaginative education within our contemporary culture of teaching and learning.

For these reasons I view the practice of contemplative inquiry as an essential modality of study complementary to the dominant analytic methods now practiced in every field. I see contemplative inquiry as the expression of an epistemology of love that is the true heart of higher education. Epistemology means ‘theory of knowledge,’ or how we know what we know. At first, love seems to have little to do with knowledge and our understanding of how it works, but if we set aside romantic love for the moment, is it not true that we come to know best that which we love most? To make this method clearer, I will distinguish seven stages in the epistemology of love.

Seven stages of an epistemology of love

The first stage is respect. We cannot take the ethical orientation of research for granted. We should consciously adopt a positive ethical orientation toward our object of study. What is the qua-lity and character of our interest in what lies before us? Do we respect the integrity of the other, be it a poet, a plant or a patient? In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke suggested that the highest we can offer another is to ‘stand guard over their solitude.’ When we truly respect the integrity of the other, we ‘border and protect’ them, Rilke suggested, even while we seek to know them more completely.

The second stage is gentleness. In his own scientific investigations, the poet Goethe, like McClintock, sought to practice what he called a ‘gentle empiricism (zarte Empire).’ If we wish to approach the object of our attention without distorting it, then we must be gentle. By contrast, the empiricism of Francis Bacon spoke of extracting nature’s secrets under extreme conditions of putting her to the rack. An epistemology of love rejects such methods.

The third stage is intimacy. Conventional science distances itself from nature and, to use Erwin Schrödinger’s terms, objectifies nature. Under this view, science disengages itself from phenomena for the sake of objectivity. Contemplative inquiry, by contrast, approaches the phenomenon delicately and respectfully, but it does nonetheless seek to become intimate with that to which it attends. We can still retain clarity and balanced judgment close-up, if we remember to exercise restraint and gentleness. The new science makes clear the implications of such intimacy in its account of observation.

The fourth stage is vulnerability. In order to know, we must open ourselves to the other. In order to move with and be influenced by the other, we must be confident enough to be vulnerable, secure enough to open ourselves to the being and becoming of the unknown. A dominating arrogance will not serve. We must learn to be comfortable with not knowing, with ambiguity and uncertainty. Only from what may appear to be weakness and ignorance can the new arise.

The fifth stage is participation. Gentle and vulnerable intimacy leads to participation in the unfolding phenomenon before us. Outer characteristics invite us to go deeper. We move and feel with the natural phenomenon, text, painting or person before us, living out of ourselves and into the other. Respectfully and delicately we join with the other, while maintaining full awareness and clarity of mind. In other words, an epistemology of love is experientially centered in the other, not in ourselves. In Emerson’s languor: ‘the intellect being where and what it sees.’ Our usual preoccupations, fears and cravings work against authentic participation.

The sixth stage is transformation. The last two characteristics, participation and vulnerability, lead to a patterning of ourselves on the other. What was outside us is now internalized. Inwardly we assume the shape, dynamic and meaning of the contemplated object. We are, in a word, transformed by experience in accord with the object of contemplation. The individual is developed, or we could say is sculpted, through the above practices.

The lineage of education as transformation dates back to at least as far as the Greeks. In his book What is Ancient Philosophy?, the French philosopher Pierre Hadot writes that for the ancient philosopher, “the goal was to develop a habitus, or new capacity to judge or criticize and to transform – that is, to change people’s way of living and seeing the world.” Simplicius asked, “What place shall the philosopher occupy in the city? That of a sculptor of men.” Or as Merleau-Ponty has put it, we need to relearn how to see the world. In an essay on science, Goethe gave voice to a potent pedagogical principle: “Every object well-contemplated opens a new organ of perception in us.” Echoing Goethe’s view while commenting on McClintock, Evelyn Fox Keller remarks that “a motivated observer develops faculties that a casual spectator may never be aware of.” The innate capacities for imaginative cognition that are everyone’s common inheritance are animated and developed through the patient practice of an epistemology of love.

The seventh stage is imaginative insight. The ultimate result of contemplative engagement as outlined here is, as Goethe might have called it, organ formation, which leads in turn to imaginative insight born of an intimate participation in the course of things. In Buddhist epistemology this has been called ‘direct perception;’ among Greeks it was called episteme and was contrasted to inferential reasoning. Knowing of this type is experienced as a kind of seeing, beholding or direct apprehension, rather than as an intellectual reasoning to a logical conclusion. It is the moment of creative insight which every scientist, scholar and artist recognizes as the axis around which their work turns, but which cannot be produced on demand. Simone Weil termed it ‘grace.’ In his journal Emerson conjoins artistic and scientific creativity by the illuminating remark, “Never did any science originate, but by a poetic perception.”
While insight is the guide of wise action, its accomplishment requires restraint. We must pause to reflect before speaking, quietly engage the issue inwardly before acting, open ourselves to not knowing before certainty arises, and we live for a time in the question before the answer emerges. Only under such conditions can the imagination work. In “East Coker,” T. S. Eliot describes the need for open awareness without expectation. “Or when under either, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing, I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope.” Poetry, indeed all art as well as all science, flows from such restraint.

So we come full circle. What began in respectful wonder flows back as insightful and harmonious action in the world and human society. Modestly, we recognize that our knowledge is a reflection of our means of inquiry and the context of our questions, and we realize that by attentively circling our subject we enrich our understanding. Traditionally distinct disciplines begin to interweave. Confronted by the problems of the environment, we weave together the insights of science, economics, politics, communication and even the arts. Each contributes to the fullness of our understanding and the pragmatics of action. Expanding our ontology and enriching our epistemologies in the ways I have indicated is, in my view, a requirement for any future philosophy of education that will give us the integrative education our students and our world sorely need.

Note. Excerpted from The Heart of Higher Education, Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc, Jossey-Bass 2010, Chapter 4, with some edits by Kosmos.

The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education


The mission of the ACMHE is to advocate for contemplative practice in higher education; to encourage new forms of inquiry and imaginative thinking; and to educate active citizens who will support a more just and compassionate direction for society. The ACMHE supports members in the development of contemplative pedagogy, research methodology, epistemology and organizational designs by creating forums for the exchange of diverse perspectives on contemplative practice in higher education. It supports the creation of a community of contemplative educators, scholars, administrators and students to develop a broad culture of contemplation in the academy.


by Arthur Zajonc, Founding Committee Chair
The view on which contemporary higher education is constructed is too limited. Its impoverished and largely reductive understanding of the world inevitably leads to partial solutions to the problems we face in such areas as education, health care, agriculture and economics. We need an education that embraces and develops an enlarged view, one that has room in it for the exploration of meaning, purpose and values and how to serve our common human future.

Likewise, the very methods of scholarship and research are limited. For all their power, the conventional methods of scientific research and critical scholarship need to be broadened. The reflective, contemplative and experiential methods developed within the contemplative traditions offer a complementary set of research methods for exploring the mind and the world. When taken together with conventional methods, an enriched research methodology and pedagogy are available for opening up new pathways for deepening and enlarging perspectives which can lead to real and lasting solutions to the problems we confront.

In addition, the ethics we practice are too often based on a limited, cost-benefit analysis. A contemplatively oriented college or university can be a community where we learn to practice an ethics of genuine compassion and learn to extend generosity to others beyond those closest to us. This development can be supported by contemplative practices, service-learning and a genuine engagement within our surrounding community and its needs.

The roots of higher education in the West can be traced back to the cathedral schools and monasteries of the 12th century. Likewise, in Asia, education was inseparable from religious and spiritual life. With the Enlightenment, education made a crucial and proper shift towards the secular. Now we are faced with the challenge of creating a form of education that is at once true to the best ideals of the Enlightenment, which valued reason, experience, and human rights, and at the same time reconnecting to the ethical and spiritual foundations that support our values and deepest understandings.

We seek to integrate a secular ethics and secular spirituality to the educational endeavor, that is to say, we seek an ethics and spirituality that is not rooted in an ideology or creed but which is available equally to all. We seek to recast the traditional foundations for education into a truly integrative, transformative and communal enterprise that cultivates the whole person in the fullest possible way.