Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Web of Life 5

From Parts to the Whole

Spinning Wheel, Ionad an Bhlascaoid, November, 2005

I remember hearing the statement "The whole is more than the sum of its parts" way back in the mid to late 1970s.  Looking for the provenance of this insight has yielded up three sources (i) Aristotle in his Metaphysica, (ii) Max Wertheimer in his Gestalt theory (1920s) and (iii) SYNERGETICS: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking by R. Buckminster Fuller in collaboration with E. J. Applewhite (Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. 1975, 1979)

Tip out the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto a table and you will have, say 1,000 pieces if it is a fairly decent sized puzzle.  Before you, there on the table, you will have the sum of a thousand parts.  Obviously there is a picture (the whole) there potentially.  When the pieces, after great care, concentration and effort, have been put together we will get the "more" of the picture.  Random parts do not make the whole.  Likewise 1000 Lego bricks spread out upon a table are very much "less" than those structures into which they can be formed by a creative mind  even though they are the very same in number.  Dismember the body of a dead animal and attempt to put it back together and one will readily see that the whole is indeed "greater" or "more than" the sum of its parts.  There is something in the "wholeness" of a specific thing that is "more than" the sum of its individual parts.

Looking through microscopes, and even telescopes, we can see parts of something which are not visible at all to the naked eye.  From its origins, science has worked by cutting things up into their constituent parts and endeavouring to go ever deeper into a specific object to arrive at its smallest possible unit, called traditionally the atom by the atomists in Ancient Greece.  This traditional emphasis on parts has been called the mechanistic approach, the reductionist approach or the atomistic approach.  Indeed, this was the worldview or weltanschauung came to the fore after the demise, or at least the eclipse in certain quarters, of the Medieval worldview roughly around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  This new scientific view saw the world essentially as a machine.  As Capra succinctly puts it: "This radical change was brought about by the new discoveries in physics, astronomy and mathematics, known as the Scientific Revolution and associated with the names of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Bacon and Newton." (The Web of Life, p. 19)  Now things had to be measured and quantified mathematically and scientifically.  In the pursuit of such mensuration and attention to details (or parts), sight was indeed lost of the overall picture or pattern or shape or whole.  Indeed, Descartes separated the human person into distinct areas of Mind and Matter (Body): He believed in an independent nonmaterial soul inhabiting and finding expression in a mechanically operated body. 

The Whole

Atlantic Ocean, Kerry, November, 2005

Now in the twentieth century there was a concerted effort to holism in certain areas of the natural and human sciences.  The emphasis on the whole has been named variously as holistic, organismic or ecological.  Overall this holistic thrust or trend in science may be called systemic thinking.  In the book under review, Dr Fritjof Capra uses "systemic" and "ecological" synonymously.  The first term is just more technical than the second, but their meaning is the same.  Essentially, systems thinking was pioneered by the biologists, who emphasized the view of living organisms as integrated wholes.

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