PULLING IT TOGETHER: THE WORLD AND ITS PARTS

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— for Henri Bergson

What is the world? How is it formed? How does the world relate to its parts and vice versa? How do the parts connect to each other?We can begin to answer these difficult questions by considering the difference between the world and nature. Not only is the distinction unclear to people, even the sciences of nature, which pride themselves on terminological precision, fail to make the distinction:

People say to me, are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics? No, I’m not. I’m just looking to find out more about the world…Whatever way it comes out, nature is there, and she’s going to come out the way she is…If you thought…you were going to get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong. It may be that you can’t get an answer to that particular question by finding out more about the character of nature. But my interest in science is to simply find out about the world.

This way of speaking is entirely typical. In the above quotation, even one of the most renowned physicists of the twentieth century, Richard Feynman, uses the words “world” and “nature” interchangeably. Yet not only are “world” and “nature” fundamentally different things, failing to recognize the distinction renders the essence of world inscrutable. As philosophers we have to insist on terminological exactness here more than anywhere. The concepts involved are simply too fundamental.

Let’s consider diametrically opposed approaches to the relationship between whole and part, the world and the things that are in it. The first approach, atomism, begins with parts and sees the world in terms of them. Or at least in theory. Practically speaking, however, we can never begin with just the parts. We are always situated within a world. As much as we would like to isolate discrete parts and begin only with them, we can never entirely obviate the fact that we start out from a whole to which the parts already belong. It’s true that we perceive a plethora of separate objects around us and that, to a certain extent, we can theoretically and even physically isolate them. Nevertheless, everything hangs together as one world. In light of this prior wholeness of the world in which we already find ourselves, how justified are we in trying to conceive of it as if it were a jigsaw puzzle pieced together out of preexisting fragments without first taking into account the whole to which the pieces belong? If we answer in the negative, then the world would not emerge out of the pieces but the pieces out of the world. Before it arrives at elementary particles, atomism first has to dismantle its object, at times conceptually, at other times physically. Only then does it conceptually reassemble quarks into hadrons, hadrons into atomic nuclei, atomic nuclei (with their electron clouds) into atoms, atoms into elements, elements into molecules, and molecules into substances. Out of the substances, atomism derives the perceivable world. From here, it continues building: the planet is part of the solar system, the solar system part of the galaxy, and so on, up to a whole of wholes that is still not — and may never be — grasped in this fashion. It isn’t surprising that atomism feels justified in beginning this way. After all, seen in terms of cosmic evolution, the elementary particles come first. The complex structures of today’s universe assembled themselves out of them. At the same time, it is equally clear that this way of thinking retrojects a unifying vantage point into origins in which nothing like a vantage point, and therefore, as we will see, nothing like a world, actually existed. The question is: How is the world unified? How does it hang together as a whole? We know that nature is held together by various forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak forces. To clarify what the world is, we have to ask whether it is held together in the same way or whether a glue of a completely different kind has to be introduced here.

The second approach to our question, holism, rejects the idea that the parts take logical precedence over the whole. After all, by starting out from the world, we already possess at least a rough blueprint of how the parts fit together. We see substances in light of an already constituted world, molecules only in light of familiar substances. For example, it was only with the aid of the “X” diffraction pattern in tomographic pictures taken by Rosalind Franklin that James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the molecular structure of DNA. If parts are possible only as parts of a whole (if they are, as parts, subdivisions of the whole), then the whole is, in its own way, more elementary than the parts. At the very least, the whole is equiprimordial with the parts. But we must not fail to notice a crucial ambiguity. We can certainly assemble a particular whole, say a car or a house or a DNA molecule, out of parts that existed prior to that particular whole, but we cannot logically derive the whole of wholes out of any parts. The whole of wholes is necessarily either presupposed or co-posited whenever we speak of parts.

Although we are obviously more philosophically sympathetic to holism, we have yet to consider whether either approach yields an accurate picture of the world, and in particular an adequate account of the relation between the world and its parts and of the parts to each other. What is missing is a clear account of the phenomenon of “relation.” Again the pivotal question is whether physical forces are enough to knit things into a world or whether some other kind of “glue” helps to hold it together. The latter is in fact the case. If we are to have a world, things must not only fit together physically but also refer and relate — or be referred and related — to each other. In contradistinction to the physical conception of nature, the world isn’t simply pasted together by forces such as gravity and electromagnetism or even by some grand, unified force. Since a reference is certainly not the same thing as a physical bond, we submit that holding matter together and holding the world together are distinct things. The world depends on matter, but only as its substrate. What holds the world together as world is the self’s integrity, the integrity of each and every individual. Only as refracted through the individual (the monad) does nature make the intersubjectivity of community possible, and therefore a world in common possible. This means that the world has an ineradicably subjective element. To avoid confusion, it bears emphasizing that we are not saying that the self holds matter together, which would obviously be absurd, but that it holds the world together. To steer clear of the absurdity of a complete subjectification of nature, everything depends on distinguishing these phenomena. Although they overlap, “world” and “nature” are not coextensive concepts. Next time, we’ll explore in more detail what makes the world so different from nature.

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