Arthur Koestler coined the term holon in his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine. He combined the suffix “on” meaning part (ie. neutron, proton, and electron) with the greek “holos” for whole. It refers to something that is both a complete individual, and a part of a larger whole at the same time. Likewise, the individual is made of even smaller things, which are composed of smaller things, and so on.
Brain neurons are holons, which are part of a brain, which is part of an animal. At each stage, the larger entity has properties that are greater than the sum of it’s parts. A brain can form thoughts, but a neuron can’t. An animal can be alive, but any one organ by itself can’t.
Maybe these hierarchies (or holoarchies) extend forever. US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recounts this popular story in his opinion of Rapanos v. United States:
In our favored version, an Eastern guru affirms that the earth is supported on the back of a tiger. When asked what supports the tiger, he says it stands upon an elephant; and when asked what supports the elephant he says it is a giant turtle. When asked, finally, what supports the giant turtle, he is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies “Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down.”
We’re constantly expanding how far we can see into larger and smaller scales. I think the smallest thing we’ve actually observed so far is a quark, and the largest thing is this blob.
From the introduction to the very cool book Heaven and Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye:
Knowledge of the smallest — and largest — entities that we can contemplate helps us to define where we fit in the scheme of things. Rather surprisingly, we find that humans are about halfway between the very smallest and the largest things we know.
The classic 1977 short film, Powers of Ten, by Charles and Ray Eames echos that theme. It zooms out to show what we know abou the extremely large, and then zooms back in to the subatomic level:
9 minutes. Link to Video
Of course I don’t have any idea, but I like the idea that holarchies extend infinitely, mainly because it’s hard to find a place to draw a line. String theory is as small as we theoretically go so far. Let’s say it’s true. Strings vibrating in 11 dimensions are the building blocks of all matter. What are the strings made of? They’re obviously loops of some substance (just energy?). String theory math says some of those extra dimensions may be wrapped around themselves in unfathomably complex (to me anyway) shapes.
At the other extreme we’ve made up the word universe to encompass everything that exists anywhere. Oddly enough, the space we experience may also be wrapped into a complex shape. Theoretical physicists are routinely working with math that suggests multiple parallel universes, maybe even infinite universes. We need a new name to encompass all of them. And what if there is a creator outside the universe(s)? To me, that seems more likely than all this stuff appearing from nothing.
My personal theory is that our entire universe exists within an electron that’s part of an atom that is part of the shell of a turtle so large that we don’t a chance of comprehending it’s presence. The universe that turtle inhabits is a subatomic particle in the next scale, and so on. Turtles all the way up.