Of Parts and Wholes

on June 1, 2012

The most radical implications of W.E. Ritter’s philosophy of “organismalism” could not have been apparent when he published The Unity of the Organism in 1918.

For one thing, there was a crucial vagueness in his assertion that “the organism in its totality is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism.” Was he simply trying to say that science could not understand cells or organs without a recognition of the roles they played in the complete organism? Or did he have something deeper in mind?

Over the next few years, however, both the vocabulary and the concepts of the new philosophy came into sharper focus. By 1926, Jan Smuts had introduced the more streamlined term “holism,” which he defined in the 1927 Encyclopedia Britannica as “the theory which makes the existence of ‘wholes’ a fundamental feature of the world.”

“It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as ‘wholes’ and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts,” Smuts explained. “It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things, and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and behaviour.”

Ritter was quick to adopt this simpler terminology of wholes and parts. In a book co-authored with one of his students in 1928, he wrote, “Wholes are so related to their parts that not only does the existence of the whole depend on the orderly cooperation and interdependence of its parts, but the whole exercises a measure of determinative control over its parts. … Structurally, functionally, and generatively, they are reciprocals of each other.”

This is to some extent a rephrasing of what he had written ten years earlier, but the confident assertion that “the whole exercises a measure of determinative control over its parts” is new and striking. So is Ritter’s insistence that wholes and parts are in every sense reciprocal — which would seem to imply that the very existence of the parts must be as dependent on the whole as the existence of the whole is dependent on the parts.

These are radical assertions. They go well beyond Smuts’ relatively modest claim that wholes amount to more than the sum of their parts. And if we accept them at face value — if we acknowledge that wholeness is a “thing” and not just a way of looking at things — we are immediately confronted with some very tricky questions.

For instance, when a fertilized egg divides and divides again in the process of development, does it also transmit its “wholeness” to the growing organism? Or if not, then where does the “wholeness” of that organism come from?

And what about the origins of life? We might plausibly conclude that both wholeness and “determinative control” kicked in at the point when the DNA molecule became self-repairing and self-replicating. But that seems uncomfortably close to old-fashioned vitalism, in which non-living matter was abruptly brought to life by the magic pixie dust of the Vital Force.

Many early holists do, in fact, appear to have been recycled vitalists. For example, the psychologist C. Wright Morgan, who coined the term “emergent evolution” for a series of lectures in 1921-22, hoped to demonstrate that life and mind could not be explained through the same laws of nature as atoms and molecules.

“The naturalistic contention,” he argued, “is that, on the evidence, not only atoms and molecules, but organisms and minds are susceptible of treatment by scientific methods fundamentally of like kind. … The question then arises whether such scientific or naturalistic interpretation suffices, or whether some further supra-naturalistic explanation is admissible. … I shall claim that it is admissible, and that there is nothing in emergent evolution, which purports to be strictly naturalistic, that precludes an acknowledgment of God.”

As holism developed further, the concept of emergent properties would shed its residual vitalism and rely instead on an assumption that the potential for life and consciousness was present in the physical universe from the start but only became active with the appearance of highly complex systems. That is still the standard attitude today — but even if we accept it as an explanation of consciousness, it can’t possibly do the same for “wholeness.”

The problem is that wholeness doesn’t exactly seem to be a property of organisms. It’s not hereditary and isn’t passed along from parent to child, like blue eyes or curly hair. It also can’t be said to evolve, since the simplest single-celled organism is as “whole” as a whale with 100 quadrillion cells.

In fact, wholeness appears to stand outside the entire structure of heredity and evolution. We might even speculate that it existed before the emergence of life and mind and was a necessary precondition for their appearance — at least, that is what Ritter’s concept of “determinative control” seems to imply.

But if wholeness is a property that is manifested in living organisms but cannot truly be said to belong to them, then the only alternative is for it to be regarded as a property which belongs to the universe-as-a-whole.

Wholeness might even be considered the only property of the universe-as-a-whole. We cannot attribute ordinary qualities to the universe, because there is nothing outside it to which it can be compared. We cannot say that it is hot or cold, old or young. All we can say is that it includes everything that exists or may exist — and that it does so as a unitary system.

And that brings to mind something I quoted from James Shapiro in the previous entry. If it’s true that “there are just systems all the way down,” then there must also be systems all the way up. In other words, the universe should be seen as the systems of all systems.

That’s an interesting notion in itself — but it gets really thought-provoking when coupled with Ritter’s insistence that wholes and parts are always reciprocal. It implies that if we exercise a measure of determinative control over the cells of our bodies, then the universe-as-a-whole must exercise a similar measure of determinative control over us. And conversely, if our individual existence depends on “the orderly cooperation and interdependence” of our parts, then the existence and functioning of the universe-as-a-whole must depend on us and on our cooperation and interdependence with our fellow beings.

It seems that if we take the implications of Ritter’s premises with complete seriousness, we wind up with a kind of evolutionary myth in which existence begins with the universe-as-a-whole plus an undifferentiated sea of energy. Out of the interaction between them, lesser wholes coalesce — sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, and complex organisms. Each of these takes its building blocks from that sea of primal energy but also carries within itself a reflective spark of ultimate wholeness.

We might even conclude that this reflection of the whole is what enables cells, organisms, and ecosystems to establish their individual identity and sense of purpose and exercise “a measure of determinative control” over their parts.

Every lesser whole, of course, remains incomplete and imperfect when compared with the universe-as-a-whole — but that is precisely what drives them to transcend their individual identities and join together in more complex structures that exhibit unity and purpose on a higher level.

It should be emphasized that lesser wholes do not give up their personal identity or freedom of action by participating in a higher identity. Rather, they acquire the ability to act in concert on goals that they cannot achieve individually. We humans, for example, continue to engage with one another as individuals even as we also serve as components of larger social and environmental systems.

What’s more, the tension between existing wholeness and potential greater wholeness appears to provide the central dynamic of human life. We may be wary of threats to our personal identity, but we are also eager to become part of something larger — whether by falling in love and raising a family, by founding a band or a cooperative food store, or by being swept up in a broad social movement or religious revival.

Now, all this speculation might seem merely hypothetical, nothing more than the result of pushing Ritter’s premises to their limits. However, I’m inclined to take it seriously for one simple reason — which is that it appears to provide an explanation for much of what I’ve been saying all along about higher knowledge.

Last fall, for example, I wrote that our intuitive flashes of higher knowledge can lead to “a mystical conviction that the universe is much larger and stranger than we commonly realize … that we are an integral part of this larger universe … that the ultimate purpose of life is to transform ordinary reality to more closely approximate our intimations of higher reality”

So if the ultimate message of holism is no different than the message of inner experience, will it enable us to escape the great existential dilemma of the 20th century and recognize higher knowledge as a genuine perception of the universe-as-a-whole and our place within it?

Or, for that matter, could higher knowledge be the first intimation of an emergent property of matter, a new form of perception that transcends both life and individual consciousness?

I strongly suspect that it is — but also that exploring the matter further will take us beyond the limits of the holism vision as we have known it and into the successor to holism that is just now struggling to be born.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here and a listing of my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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