Previous: Novelists and reductionistsNext: Holes and partsContents

Society of Mind

2.3 Parts and wholes

We're often told that certain wholes are more than the sum of their parts. We hear this expressed with reverent words like holistic and gestalt, whose academic tones suggest that they refer to clear and definite ideas. But I suspect the actual function of such terms is to anesthetize a sense of ignorance. We say gestalt when things combine to act in ways we can't explain, holistic when we're caught off guard by unexpected happenings and realize we understand less than we thought we did. For example, consider the two sets of questions below, the first subjective and the second objective:

What makes a drawing more than just its separate lines? How is a personality more than a set of traits? In what way is a culture more than a mere collection of customs? What makes a tower more than separate blocks? Why is a chain more than its various links? How is a wall more than a set of many bricks?

Why do the objective questions seem less mysterious? Because we have good ways to answer them — in terms of how things interact. To explain how walls and towers work, we just point out how every block is held in place by its neighbors and by gravity. To explain why chain-links cannot come apart, we can demonstrate how each would get in its neighbors' way. These explanations seem almost self-evident to adults. However, they did not seem so simple when we were children, and it took each of us several years to learn how real-world objects interact — for example, to prevent any two objects from ever being in the same place. We regard such knowledge as obvious only because we cannot remember how hard it was to learn.

Why does it seem so much harder to explain our reactions to drawings, personalities, and cultural traditions? Many people assume that those subjective kinds of questions are impossible to answer because they involve our minds. But that doesn't mean they can't be answered. It only means that we must first know more about our minds.

Subjective reactions are also based on how things interact. The difference is that here we are not concerned with objects in the world outside, but with processes inside our brains.

In other words, those questions about arts, traits, and styles of life are actually quite technical. They ask us to explain what happens among the agents in our minds. But this is a subject about which we have never learned very much — and neither have our sciences. Such questions will be answered in time. But it will just prolong the wait if we keep using pseudo-explanation words like holistic and gestalt. True, sometimes giving names to things can help by leading us to focus on some mystery. It's harmful, though, when naming leads the mind to think that names alone bring meaning close.