Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Web of Life 10


Some children like to break their toys up to see what they are made of, and some few of these like to see if they can get them back together again.  Breaking things down as well as building things up have always been preoccupations of humankind.  I was never one of those boys who liked to break his toys - this combination of words sounds distinctly like the start of a poem, does it not?  Be that as it may, we often wonder literally how far we can say keep cutting a piece of wood in half.  In other words what we are searching for here is an answer to the question: Is there an ultimate, indivisible unit of matter?  The WIKI gives us the following insight into the history of atomism:

In the 5th century BC, Leucippus and his pupil Democritus proposed that all matter was composed of small indivisible particles called atoms, in order to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought on the nature of reality. On one side was Heraclitus, who believed that the nature of all existence is change. On the other side was Parmenides, who believed instead that all change is illusion.Parmenides denied the existence of motion, change and void. He believed all existence to be a single, all-encompassing and unchanging mass (a concept known as monism), and that change and motion were mere illusions. (See Atomism )

Beyond Atomism to Quantum Physics

We are firmly in the age of Quantum Physics.  We have left the atomistic world of Democritus and even of the more recent pre-Quantum physics times behind us.  Indeed Dr. Fritjof Capra tells us, should we need reminding, that subatomic particles have no meaning as separate things or entities in themselves.  He informs us, rather, that they are "interconnections, and these, in turn, are interconnections between other things, and so on.  In quantum theory we never end up with any "things"; we always deal with interconnections." (The Web of Life, p. 30).  In short, this means that we simply cannot break down or decompose the world into independently existing elementary units.  This is a huge idea to get our minds around and we need to comtemplate it because there is deep mystery at work here.  Contemplating on this we arrive at interesting insights like the fact that the further we penetrate down we come across no basic isolated building blocks but rather we encounter a profound and complex web of inter-relationships and suble connections and interconnections that somehow make up a unified whole which we might call the reality of this world.  As a virtual neophyte in the world of sub-atomic physics it is interesting to read the following from Capra:

In the formalism of quantum theory, these relationships are expressed in terms of probabilities, and the probabilities are determined by the dynamics of the whole system.  Whereas in classical mechanics the properties and behaviours of the parts determine those of the whole, the situation is reversed in quantum mechanics: it is the whole the determines the behaviour of the parts. (Ibid., p.31)
Gestalt Psychology

"Gestalt" is the German word for "organic form," and this much discussed area was known as the "Gestaltproblem" in the German language.  By "organic form" is meant animate or living form as distinct from inanimate.  The philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels was the first scholar to use the word "gestalt" in the sense of an irreducible perceptual pattern and this led to the founding of the school of gestalt psychology.  It was Ehrenfels who coined the well-known sentence that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."  This famous saying has now become the mantra or motto of systems thinkers everywhere.  It was Max Wertheimer and and Wolfgang Kohler who set the Gestalt Movement going, and they maintained that the existence of irreducible wholes was central to perception.  Hence, the notion of pattern was always to the fore in this school of psychology.  Like the organismic biologists, these psychologists saw their particular take on perception as a third way beyond mechanism and vitalism.  Capra reminds us that there a complete holistic zeitgeist reigned supreme during the entire Weimar period of rule in Germany.

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