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Holistic Intelligence

by Tom Atlee, July 2015

"Co-intelligence" is actually a manifestation of a more vast and
ubiquitous phenomenon referred to as "holistic intelligence."

When I first coined the term "co-intelligence" in the early 1990s, I wondered if it might be more accurately called "holistic intelligence" since it embraced phenomena at the intersection of intelligence and wholeness. But I found that that term was not as publicly understandable or appealing, so I stuck with "co-intelligence".

Then in 2015, while working on how to more concisely and usefully talk about co-intelligence, I realized that the implicit holistic nature and bias of co-intelligence could fruitfully be viewed as a manifestation of a more general and universal holistic dynamic which deserved its own name and exploration. So I have summoned the term "holistic intelligence" back into service to embrace that more fundamental phenomenon.

Holistic intelligence can be viewed in many ways. You can think of it as:
(a) the intelligence of The Whole of Reality (associated with ideas like "the wisdom of Nature"),
(b) a transcendent Intelligence that shapes reality (associated with ideas like "Intelligent Design")
- or - in my view most functionally - as
(c) the evolutionary impulses and dynamics used by any and all wholes[1] to sustain and transform their states of wholeness[2].
Any or all of these frames can usefully describe what holistic intelligence is all about.

Holistic intelligence arises from the holistic, interconnected, and co-creative nature of reality itself, such that events in one part of reality impact other parts of reality, driving the evolution of both the parts and the whole. My studies of holistic intelligence have especially focused on the dynamics that occur as various forms of wholeness are disrupted by various forms of disturbance[3] and then return to the former state of wholeness (e.g., "healing") or progress to a new form of wholeness (e.g., "transformation").

I've tried many ways to explain all this, but have not yet settled on one description. So for the time being I offer you the three descriptions below to stimulate your own sensibilities about this phenomenon. Even the occasional repetitions you'll notice in them may help familiarize you with the subject.


Holistic intelligence involves the evolutionary dynamism that we find in all domains and at all levels, thanks to the holistic, interrelated nature of reality.

Co-intelligence - a subset of holistic intelligence - focuses on the human manifestations of that dynamic, and our conscious use of it.

An example of this dynamic is the tendency of any living or life-like system, when disturbed, to seek to reestablish or renew its former state or to transform itself into something new that has more integrity or utility under the circumstances. We can observe this tendency in how forces involved with a disturbed forest, species, person, mechanism or idea act to reestablish its prior order or to stimulate a new form to emerge (including the entity's breakdown into components useful elsewhere).

When we're facing this dynamic in human groups, organizations, communities, or societies, we find problems, conflicts and dysfunctions calling forth energies seeking solutions, resolution, organizational or social change, and so on. In other words, we find some degree of co-intelligence at work.

In both cases, we are observing impulses for more healthy integrity, functionality and/or contextual "fitness" - which are all manifestations of life's wholeness-seeking impulse trying to regain some variety of wholesomeness after a disturbance.

So holistic intelligence can be considered the intelligence that characterizes the evolution of any whole, driven by the dynamics of evolving wholeness.

Studying the general principles of holistic intelligence brings to light metaphysical and subtle dynamics that underlie many manifestations of co-intelligence and thus can increase one's mastery of that latter subject. On the other hand - luckily - you don't have to know anything at all about holistic intelligence to study and work competently with co-intelligence.


Wholes move from one state of wholeness, through dissonance, dynamic tensions and interactive, co-creative processes to other states of wholeness. This dynamic unfolds at every scale, in every facet of reality, generating ever-new forms of health and integrity within things and fit-ness (harmony and balance) among things, which we experience as the evolving world. This process of iteratively arriving at new forms of fit-ness and integrity can be viewed as a form of intelligence at work - albeit all too often functioning without any individual personal intelligence making it happen.

How is that?

Well, everyone, everything, and the whole of life are constantly interacting, going through changes and evolving, even when we don't notice that that's happening.

At any given time, some of those things will be whole, healthy, or orderly and others will be broken, sick, or chaotic. And all of them are going through changing phases in which they move from a more whole state to a less whole state and then to a new (or renewed) whole state. This happens in healing, in transformation, in learning, in revitalization, in conflicts and their resolution, and in many other familiar phenomena - even death and dissolution.

So the wholeness of reality and everything in it is always evolving, always in process. There's a certain rhythm to that and certain dynamics involved that can be viewed as creatively intelligent, in the sense of an ongoing redesign of the way things fit together. This motion from wholeness to unwholeness to wholeness, etc. - this intelligence of evolving wholeness that I call "holistic intelligence" - is governed by factors that can be studied and understood.

From this novel perspective, co-intelligence can be seen as humanity's way of participating more effectively in the ongoing, intrinsic holistic intelligence of the universe. So the dynamics of co-intelligence naturally manifest the dynamics of holistic intelligence.

Perhaps a couple of analogies can help clarify this relationship between co-intelligence and holistic intelligence.

One analogy: Human music can be viewed as a way humanity has of participating in the ongoing vibrational "symphony" of the universe. This way of looking at music can be a very inspiring vision for some people. On the other hand, someone doesn't need to buy into this vision in order to learn and create music.

Another analogy: Underlying most principles and rules of ethics and morality is an understanding that our lives are interconnected and that certain behaviors help or harm our relationships with each other, with ourselves, and with the larger Life we are part of and upon which we depend. We can function quite ethically simply by following ethical principles and moral rules. On the other hand, the more we understand the nuances of our interconnectedness and the consequences of our actions, the more intelligently and flexibly we can apply moral principles and rules, and even behave ethically where there are no rules or principles to guide us.

Co-intelligence and holistic intelligence are like that. Holistic intelligence is the metaphysics behind co-intelligence and the dynamics that underlie its many manifestations. But you don't need to understand that metaphysics to function in the everyday world. Recognizing, using and enhancing co-intelligence does not require knowing anything at all about holistic intelligence and "evolving wholeness". However, really understanding the dynamics of evolving wholeness can help you master the dynamics of co-intelligence, see their interplay more clearly, engage with co-intelligence in novel situations and apply it more flexibly.

Practical people will tend to want to focus on co-intelligence and get to work applying its specific principles and methods. More philosophical people may prefer to explore holistic intelligence and develop a more intuitive sensibility about its workings and how they apply to co-intelligence. These two subjects can be studied and used quite well separately or together.

For more about the varieties of, perspectives on, and dynamics of wholeness that constitute the "field" of holistic intelligence, see our main webpage on wholeness . You can also explore holistic intelligence in the form of "grace" in Chapter 14 of my book REFECTIONS ON EVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISM, "Goodness Gracious: Evolutionary integrity and our engagement with life" and the subsequent poem "A Powerful Grace". In the first paragraph of Chapter 14 I say "Grace is the impulse of Life and Reality to move from one state of wholeness to its next state of wholeness." I also talk about "our participation in Grace - our active, blessed, and challenging role in the ever-emerging Goodness of Life." The book is available in free pdf form (as well as a paperback you can buy) at the book's website.


Eight principles of holistic intelligence

1. Holistic intelligence is not a characteristic of a person or group, per se, but of reality itself. However, it shows up naturally in the web of life as well as within, among, and around all entities, including people and social units.

2. In specific dissonant situations, holistic intelligence manifests as the urge or tendency to generate congruence, coherence, fit-ness, healing, balance, and/or harmony within, among, around, and/or beyond the entities involved. Wherever we find circumstances becoming more whole in ways like these, we know that holistic intelligence is at work.

3. The creation of congruence, coherence, fitness, harmony, healing, balance and other forms of wholeness in one part of reality usually generates some form of disturbance in another part of reality, whereupon holistic intelligence is evoked in that realm as well. This process is ongoing and drives evolution. (Note: Co-intelligence involves, in part, an effort to understand this aspect of situations and to play a conscious role in minimizing and/or using well any disturbances that might be created. Thus its close kinship with conscious evolution.)

4. Holistic intelligence - as well as its human manifestation, co-intelligence - deals with any disturbance by seeking new or renewed wholeness. This can manifest within the situation or system being considered - e.g., through healing or transformation. It also operates at higher and/or lower scales, such as when an entity dies and its components are distributed at a lower scale of the system it occupied, to be utilized by other entities in ways that sustain their health and the health of the system that includes all such entities.

5. Holistic intelligence intrinsically involves everything and everyone connected to a situation to the extent they are related to that situation. Since all such entities are involved in the co-creation and co-evolution of the situation in the first place, they almost always continue to participate (albeit seldom very consciously) in the unfolding dynamics of holistic intelligence in that situation. (This is the principle underlying the effort in co-intelligence work to take into account all possibly relevant factors and to consciously and productively engage a full spectrum of the people and perspectives involved in the whole situation or collective activity - moderated by a humble, alert, and continuing awareness that "there's more to this than we have yet understood"....)

6. The wholeness of reality is characterized by all the ways everything fits into a coherent whole. The wholeness-seeking dynamics that are evoked in the presence of disturbance make even disturbances part of the overall wholesome (wholeness-serving) dynamics that characterize holistic intelligence. Through the dynamics of disturbance and renewed wholeness in and among entities, the structure of the "fit" that characterizes the whole of reality (or any of its parts) evolves. This quality of whole systems can properly be described as "evolving wholeness".

7. The different kinds of wholeness vary independently. For example, completeness, health, environmental fit, wisdom, coherence, etc., can each be present when some of the others are not, or at least not be present to the same extent or in the same way. In any case, per Principle 4 above, any sub-optimum aspects of wholeness in a situation will generate disturbances that evoke energies to recover or produce wholeness in that dimension of that situation. Reality continually tells us what we need to pay attention to in order to participate in the wholeness-generating enterprise of holistic intelligence.

8. Holistic intelligence can be viewed - in a way that includes and transcends all these dynamics - as the intelligence of The Whole of Reality or as a transcendent Intelligence that shapes reality. However, within the field of co-intelligence, holistic intelligence is most usefully viewed through the dynamics given above - the way dissonance evokes wholeness-nurturing impulses that operate within, through, and among the particular entities or systems involved. In this way these evolving entities and systems manifest the intelligence of The Whole of Reality, whether anyone is aware of it or not


[1] "A WHOLE", in this context, can be a whole community, ecosystem, idea, situation, world, or any other complex living or life-like thing that goes through disturbances, changes and challenges whereby it then heals, transforms, or usefully dissolves into another whole at a comparable or different level or scale (e.g., when it dies).

[2] When we speak of "WHOLENESS", we are referring to factors that make a whole a whole - or qualities through which we can understand and engage productively with the holistic nature of reality. Usually the term wholeness is used to indicate one or more of the following:

  1. qualities used to define the nature of a whole (e.g., completeness, integrity, health, harmony, unity/diversity...);
  2. qualities, dynamics, or phenomena that manifest some aspect of the holistic nature of reality (e.g., interconnectedness, cybernetic feedback, the butterfly effect, emergence...);
  3. resources - often available by investing more attention than energy - that exist because of the holistic nature of reality (e.g., resonance, life energy, synergy [the whole is greater than the sum of its parts] and holergy [a "part" is greater than its role in any whole]...) and thus can be tapped by evocation, facilitation and/or wise design;
  4. factors which need to be taken into account or engaged when seeking to create a new whole or to make an existing situation more complete and harmonious (e.g., inclusion, co-creative participation, context, tolerance of uncertainty...);
  5. characteristics of natural/naturally evolved whole systems (e.g., self-organization, fractals, evolving "fit", aliveness, mutuality...);
  6. qualities associated with holistic physics, metaphysics and spirituality (e.g., interiority, non-duality, non-locality, field effects, holographics [the whole contained within the part]...); and/or
  7. characteristics associated with people who deal well with these other factors (e.g., wise, humble, trusting, catalytic, broad-minded...).

[3] DISTURBANCE can be dissent, dissonance, problems, damage, issues, illness, crisis, conflict, trouble, pain, interference, harm, degradation, suffering, upset, chaos, irritation, and any other type of unsettledness.

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