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1. Introduction. The Need for a New Vision

To date, modern science has relied on an essentially analytic strategy. Different sciences have been developed in order to efficaciously segment the whole of reality into classes of more or less uniformly connected phenomena. The guiding idea has been that phenomena occurring within each class are more causally homogeneous than phenomena pertaining to other classes, so that the task of explaining their behavior should be more easily accomplished. This divide et impera (divide and rule) strategy has proved immensely successful, at least for some regions of reality. Other regions have proved more refractory, for a number of serious reasons. The first is that different regions may require different types of causation, some of which are still unknown, or only partially known. A second reason is that for some regions of reality the analytic strategy of breaking items down into pieces does not work properly. A third and somewhat connected reason is the lack of a synthetic methodology.

The underneath of a spiral staircase in the Cathedral de Justo, currently under construction in Madrid, Spain.

The complexity of reality requires the analytic strategy of segmentation into categorically homogeneous regions. This first move is not questioned. However, some regions contain only items that can be further analytically segmented into pieces. These items are entirely governed by their parts (from below, so to speak). Other regions contain items with different patterns: they depend not only on their parts, but also on the whole that results from them, and eventually also on higher-order wholes of which they are parts (e.g., organisms, communities).

Mainstream science, however, has defended and still defends the idea that sooner or later all types of reality will be analytically understood. The outstanding successes achieved by analytic methods, however, come at a price: namely the fragmentation of all types of entities into their lower-order parts, especially material parts. Not only are living entities seen as nothing other than biochemical reactions, but also mental phenomena are supposedly completely understood in terms of brain dynamics. Moreover, persons are seen as agents, and furthermore as individual (i.e., isolated), purely egoistic agents, as if they were atoms within a container.

More profoundly, the analytic process of fragmentation creates apparently insurmountable barriers (1) between physical and biological sciences, (2) among the natural, cognitive and social sciences, and (3) among science, philosophy and religion. The world itself becomes fragmented and loses its integrity. The fact is that analysis may inadvertently destroy the relational linkages that are crucial in the study of ‘living’ systems. Synthesis, on the other hand, is a natural procedure with which to study emergence: the (unanticipated) relational connections that appear when a multitude of component systems interact. To give but a single example, it is enlightening to observe our wealthy societies: apparently, the result of the systematic adoption of purely analytic methods is that wealthy societies become increasingly wealthy, while people and societies themselves seem to become more and more internally fragile.

The main problem is that at least some items cannot be fragmented without losing relevant information. Organisms, persons, and communities are some of the striking cases. When they are fragmented and reduced to their ‘matter’ they lose their most essential property: life for organisms and spirit for persons and communities. Analytic methods deprive persons and communities of their spirit.

Admittedly, our understanding of non-fragmentable items is still deficient. Otherwise stated, there is no denying that a properly developed method of synthesis needs to be developed. Many scholars doubt that it will ever be developed or acquire scientific respectability. Indeed, reductionism as a general position can be seen as the answer provided by those who believe that an inclusive synthetic picture will never be achieved.

Science, as it has been developed during the past few centuries, has no internal capacity to distinguish responsible from irresponsible projects. Scientists may be deeply responsible persons, or fathers/mothers, or citizens, but there is no way internal to science to draw the boundary between responsible and non responsible research projects and applications. This state of affairs can be seen as a consequence, possibly one of the most important ones, of the overwhelming prevalence of analytic strategies.

These factors notwithstanding, awareness is starting to spread that something has gone wrong within mainstream science (and, let us add, philosophy as well). As successful as analytic methods may be, at some point they fail properly to grasp the phenomena under consideration. At some point something different is required, something gentler and more respectful of the integrity of the phenomena themselves.

The availability of both strategies (analytic and synthetic) will enable the development of a more articulated, integral, respectful and responsible vision of the world.

The synthetic vision required is anything but antiscientific. We defend science in all its aspects. At the same time, however, we struggle for a more integral science, a science able to integrate its many branches, a science able to dialogue, to teach and to learn from both philosophy and theology. This vision heads toward a New Humanism, a spiritual achievement that may be able to bridge many of the cleavages that segment our culture into isolated and isolating islands. As a side remark, it may be worth noting that the trend toward more and more complex forms of analytic specializations seems to have substantially contributed to the general feeling that universities are failing badly in their roles.

The misplaced faith in analytic, reductionist methods follows almost unavoidably from the lack of a correct ontology, and in particular from the lack of both a theory of wholes and their parts and a theory of levels of reality. More often than not, scholars defending otherwise widely different theories of spirituality have advocated some form or other of the theory of levels (also known as the theory of aspects of reality). Thinkers who have taken this approach include Husserl, Stein, Ingarden, Hartmann, Conrad-Martius and Dooyeweerd. All of them have realized that without a properly developed theory of levels of reality, the deep, ontological differences between organisms, minds and spirits become easily blurred.

Following a somewhat different path, some scientists have also advocated the shift towards synthetic methods (Bohm and Rosen, among others). Carl W. Hall, former deputy assistant director, directorate for engineering, of the National Science Foundation (USA), started a paper of his entitled “The Age of Synthesis” with the following words: “As we enter the 21st century we are in the beginning stages of a new age of synthesis, philosophically and technologically. … This new age of synthesis is being built on and utilizes the emphasis on analysis featured in the 20th century”. And then continued: “Synthesis provides a framework for guiding analysis, research, development, management, and education” (Hall, 1996, p. 12). James F. Danielli, director of the Center for Theoretical Biology in Buffalo (1965-1974) and also the founder and long-time editor of the Journal of Theoretical Biology (1962-1984) regularly used the expression “age of synthesis”. Danielli was describing the three ages in the science of modern biology as the age of observation ® age of analysis ® age of synthesis. But the description is just as appropriate for science in general.

2. Analysis and Synthesis

Analysis and synthesis have been used in many different ways. By way of exemplification, the Greeks understood analysis as a working back or reduction to principles, and Euclid masterfully applied it to geometry. Synthesis then became the opposite strategy, which started from principles and derived consequences from them. This initial understanding of analysis and synthesis was also the starting point of a different interpretation, according to which analysis is tied to induction and synthesis to deduction. Closer to the present day, the fathers of analytic philosophy, Frege and Russell, understood analysis as a transformative or interpretive dimension. In order to apply the tools of logical analysis, sentences should be transformed into their appropriate canonical form ( (Dubray), (Beaney, 2007)).

On the other hand, science uses analysis and synthesis in further different ways. As far as analysis is concerned, the term is used in fields as different as spectrographic analysis, cost-benefit analysis and environmental analysis, and many more besides. Synthesis, too, is used in widely different fields, such as chemical synthesis, frequency modulation synthesis and Fourier synthesis, and many others.

Unfortunately, none of these more or less well documented understandings of analysis and synthesis fits well with the problems we are about to discuss. For this reason, we shall propose a different interpretation of analysis and synthesis implicitly sketched in the Introduction above. One merit of the interpretation we are about to present is that it is an interpretation grounded in the experience of most of us, even if only rarely is it spelled out explicitly with all the necessary details.

According to the interpretation we are proposing, analysis and synthesis are the two general strategies to which we may resort to answer the basic question “what is this?” It is unquestionably true that there are many different ways to answer this basic question. When I look at my cat Sigliende and ask myself “what is Sigliende?” I may answer in a biologically oriented fashion and say for instance: Sigliende is a cat, a feline, a mammal, an animal, a living being. Or I may instead answer by stressing the connection between Sigliende and myself and say: Sigliende is a pet, or even better, Sigliende is my pet. These answers – and many more – are unquestionably correct. Here, however, I would like to dig deeper and try to understand what it is that makes Sigliende the entity that it is. The “biologically oriented” kind of answer provides one way to understand the nature of Sigliende. A twin and possibly deeper way to answer the same question is to adopt a structural framework, a part-whole framework able to clarify which kinds of internal dependencies are at work with Sigliende. In brief, this is precisely what most natural scientists do: they look for structures.

The question “what is this?” is the basis of any and every effort to understand reality, be it the little, apparently irrelevant, item we are curiously watching, or the marvel of a starry night or the sense of uncomfortable piety we feel at the suffering of a living being. Whatever it is, whatever its value, we love and want to know it.

As far as I can see, there are only four possible general strategies able to provide some answers to the “what is this?” question. Let us give a name to “this” and call it “A”. To answer the question about the nature of A we may adopt one of the following four strategies:

  • A is what results from its parts (by way of a first approximation: look downwards)
  • A is what results from its neighbors (look sideways)
  • A is what results from the wholes to which it pertains (look upwards)
  • A is simply what it is, A is A and nothing else (look nowhere)

It is apparent that there is a major difference between the first three answers, on the one hand, and the fourth answer on the other. The first three answers seem able to provide some information about the A we are inquiring about, while the fourth answer refers to a formal constraint (the identity of A), something apparently unable to provide any articulated kind of information. It is worth noting that the formal reading provided by the fourth answer above may be a necessary constraint required if our mathematical and logical frameworks are to start working, and in this sense it has indeed a remarkable role to play. Furthermore, it may have a role to play as a general metaphysical principle by calling attention to the fact that every individual entity is that particular individual, it has its own individual nature, and for this reason it is different from any other individual entity. This metaphysical side of the identity problem is usually called the haecceity of A, after a term introduced by the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus. Both readings of identity, the formal and the metaphysical ones, show that the fourth claim above is substantially more important than appears at first sight.

However, the main problem with the claim is that it is uninformative. It may play the role of a basic (formal or otherwise) constraint, and in this sense it is something that any research framework should respect, but in itself it does not provide further information. Even if Section 4 below will show that there is still more to the matter, for the time being it is plain that in order to articulate an informative answer to the question “what is A?” we cannot but limit our consideration to one or more of the first three answers.

The second answer (look sideways) also seems somewhat secondary. In order for some B that is not part of A to influence A there must be a context C such that both A and B are part of C. Looking sideways is a well-known piece of wisdom: more often than not, the behavior of a teenager is easier to understand by looking at her peers or at her parents, as the situation may suggest. In either case, the answer is provided by the whole that is the group of peers or the whole that is the family. Answer two is thus but a special case of answer three.

We are left with two main cases:

  • A is what results from its parts (look downwards)
  • A is what results from the wholes to which it pertains (look upwards)

Two more steps are needed to properly understand the workings of analysis and synthesis. The next step is to consider that, more often than not, in order to complete the answer to the initial question about the nature of A, we must add a second question, namely “what does A do?” This second question amounts to the imposition of constraints. In order for item A to be able to do whatever it does, the parts of A and their interactions must be arranged in such a way that A can do whatever it does. Complementarily, in order for the item A to be able to do whatever it does, the wholes to which A pertains must be arranged in such a way that A can do whatever it does. These two instances of making possible (a concept I have learned from (Perzanowski, 1994)) play different roles: from below making possible refers to the presence of enabling conditions, from above it refers to the lack of inhibiting conditions.

The final and main step is to set the window of inquiry. The main option here is whether one single windowing is able to provide the information we seek, or whether more (at least two) windowings are needed.

The three steps just sketched show that it is far too simple to conceive analysis as only the strategy of looking downwards, and synthesis as only the strategy of looking upwards. Analysis is instead the strategy of looking downwards together with the assumption that one single windowing of inquiry is sufficient. In order words, analysis claims that all the information concerning item A are present in the framework composed of the parts of A plus their mutual relations. By contrast synthesis starts from the claim that more than one windowing of inquiry is needed. Let us assume that two windowings are required, one for the whole A and one for its parts. The claim that two windowings are needed makes sense only if some of the information related to A is not present in its parts and subsequent relations. In turn, this amounts to saying that what A does imposes constraints on its parts and their relations. The parts are constrained precisely by the fact that they are parts of that whole. The problem is that the parts of A do not “see” the constraints imposed by A. In other words, A’s parts must respect constraints they do not see. Analysis has no way of answering the question of the constraints imposed from above.

The distinction between single and multiple windowings brings to light the connection between analysis and reductionism. If A can be entirely understood by looking at the single windowing composed by its parts plus their interactions, the same procedure can be repeated for the parts themselves. We take them as wholes and entirely decompose them into their own parts and interrelations. In the end we arrive at the rock-bottom layer of reality, at what is really real, as they say. The fact that in the meantime we lose all the rest of reality, ourselves included, does not seem too worrying a conclusion for many scholars. I can perhaps grudgingly accept, at least for the time being, this unwelcome strategy, providing that no other options are available. But there is synthesis, and it turns out that synthesis is both more informative and more general than analysis. By admitting a number of windowings and their internal dependences, the framework provided by synthesis can raise, and eventually also try to answer, many more questions than any analytic framework could ever dream of.

3. Wholes and Their Parts

Whichever aspect of reality interests us, it can be seen as alternatively a whole or as a part. Consider material reality: atoms form molecules, which form cells, which form organisms. We can go further downwards to subatomic particles or upwards to groups of organisms and ecosystems. Leaving the two boundary cases aside, all the rest is a part when seen from above and a whole when it is seen from below.

This is important because it shows that, as soon as one fixes the A one is interested in, this A can be seen as either the whole that results from its parts or as a part that plays a role within its whole(s). This strategy can be repeated for every and any kind of thing. Both strategies are always available. This is indeed a rather fortunate situation. The possibility itself of science may indeed depend on the alternating play of wholes and parts.

A subtle problem, however, emerges. Both strategies, as said, are always available, at least in principle. The problem, however, is that the overall outcomes resulting from their systematic exploitation are remarkably different. One strategy pulls everything towards its lower constituents. As we have seen, analysis is the strategy adopted by all the many versions of reductionism. On the other hand, the twin strategy of looking upwards pulls everything towards some overall whole encompassing all the aspects and nuances of reality. Untempered holism, however, can be as utterly wrong as untempered reductionism. Both strategies, then, have their dangers.

The discussion thus far, however, explains why universal analysis down to the last parts and universal synthesis up to the most encompassing whole are both unsupported extensions of the reasoning proposed here. Both analysis and synthesis, in fact, depend on the previous move of windowing item A, the unit under scrutiny. Analysis and synthesis are always related to some A. It is with respect to A that we have to see which of the two strategies is eventually more informative. In principle, all options are available: analysis may prove more informative than synthesis, or synthesis may prove more informative than analysis, or they may be equally informative. It may also be that analysis proves more informative for some aspects of the scrutiny, and synthesis for other aspects. Keeping item A firmly within the focus of scrutiny is therefore mandatory to avoid the pitfalls of either untempered reductionism or untempered holism.

4. The Three Main Kinds of Whole

As noted at the beginning of the paper, analysis tends to forget information. Analysis is blind to the information that is valid only at the level of the whole. Unfortunately, there are cases where the most important information characterizing the whole – what makes the whole what it is – is precisely the information that analysis is unable to take into account. In order to spell out in some detail what I have just written, I need to distinguish among three main types of whole, namely simple, partial and integral wholes.

Simple wholes are wholes that can be decomposed into parts without losing information. Partial wholes are wholes that are not simple and that require other wholes to exist and to do what they are supposed to do. Integral wholes are wholes that are not simple and are maximal, in the sense that they do not require other wholes of the same type to exist. For them, doing usually implies further conditions, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

To understand the difference between partial and integral wholes, consider the difference between, say, an ear and an organism. Both are wholes. Ears are authentic wholes, they can be studied by themselves in order to understand what they are and do. One can divide an ear into its parts and see how they are made and what they do. The same applies to an organism. Both are authentic wholes, both can be studied in themselves, both can be subjected to (partial) analysis and synthesis. On the other hand, it seems correct to claim that organisms are more completely wholes than ears.

Organisms have their own dependencies on other entities (air for aerobic ones, food, mates, etc), because organisms are parts of higher-order wholes, such as the ecological niche in which they live. All this is patently true, and it amounts saying that organisms are far from being absolute wholes. On the other hand, it seems also correct to claim that organisms are more important stop-points than ears, the latter being less integral than the former.

Even if the idea of an integral whole is slippery and difficult to make crystal-clear, it nevertheless appears to be both correct and quite natural. Reality has joints, and any proper understanding of reality should learn to distinguish its joints. The fact that we are often wrong says more about the limitations of our cognitive capacities than about reality itself.

4.1 Simple wholes

Simple wholes are the unquestioned realm of analysis. All questions concerning simple wholes can be answered by decomposing them into their parts and subsequent relations. Decomposition fully answers all the questions that can be raised. Aggregates may be cases in point.

4.2 Partial wholes

Partial wholes are remarkably more interesting than simple wholes. Consider the above example of the ear, which incidentally was the example exploited by the Riemann’s unfinished paper “The Mechanism of the Ear” (1866) (see (Ritchey, 1996) for details). The starting point is the question: what is the ear supposed to do? It seems apparent that ears are such that they make the organism able to perceive sounds. This answer has two sides.

First, ears play some role within organisms. Like everything else, they need wholes of which to be parts. On the other hand, organisms build ears, not the other way round. This provides some evidence for the claim that ears are partial and not integral wholes.

Second, by having a role to play, ears cannot but constrain their own parts in such a way that they end up forming a structure that is putatively able to play the role it has to play. Parts should further constrain their subparts so that they can play their own roles. And so on and so forth.

Two further observations are worth adding. The constraining procedure may always fail. For any windowing, the constraints imposed by the relevant whole may not be able to steer the appropriate developments (Poli 2009, Ontology of Anticipation). This may imply, for instance, that the organ “ear” fails to play its role, and this in its turn may further imply that the organism must either forget the perception of sounds or explore other avenues (e.g., different kinds of perception, or different kinds of ears). Secondly, the phenomenon of biological convergence, according to which the most diverse biological species are able to discover the same solutions, shows that, thus far, almost unknown higher-order constraints are at work (see the astonishing evidence accumulated by (Conway Morris, Life’s Solution. Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, 2003) and (Conway Morris, The Deep Structure of Biology, 2008)). When searching for a solution to its problems, life apparently does not traverse the entire combinatorial space of possibilities, but continues to discover the same solutions.

4.3 Integral Wholes

The case represented by integral wholes is substantially more intriguing than the two previous cases of simple and partial wholes. In fact, integral wholes are wholes in a twofold way, so to speak. Not only are they closer to what we have called above the joints of reality, but they have further structural dimensions lacking in the previous cases.

As a starter, the priority of organisms with respect to their organs does not seem to pose too severe a problem. The issue is remarkably more intricate, however, where physical systems are concerned, because it seems that there is no obvious way to segment physical items into integral as opposed to non-integral wholes or systems. Well, not really. Consider the famous three-body problem. The three-body problem was – and still is – one of the first failures of classical mechanics. In brief, we can systematically calculate everything that we need to calculate with respect to the dynamics and mutual interactions of two bodies. However, as soon as we pass from two to three interacting bodies, a systematic strategy is no longer available. Even if physicists and engineers are able to calculate the solution of each individual instance of a three-body problem, no general solution is available. The reason is that the dynamics of a three-body system gives origin to an authentic indecomposable whole, which implies that “one cannot solve a three-body problem reductionistically, by solving two-body and one-body problems” (Rosen, 2000, p. 109). Any decomposition of a three-body problem into a one-body and a two-body problem omits something (in this case the integrality of their dynamics).

This simple example from baby-physics teaches us two lessons. First, the integrality of an integral whole may be of a dynamic nature. Second, the analysis-synthesis complementarity is even subtler than expected. In fact, we may be able to analytically decompose any single individual instance of a given problem without this implying that we have a general method able to systematically address the problem. Sometimes we also know that no general method will ever be available.

Some integral wholes exhibit the further intriguing structural feature of producing their own parts. The capacity of a whole to produce the components of which it is composed is usually called autopoiesis, after (Maturana & Varela, 1980). An autopoietic whole does not start from a set of pre-given elements, neither does it assemble them. Autopoietic wholes are self-referential systems, meaning that the whole’s relational self-production governs the whole’s capacity to have contacts with its environment. Put otherwise, the whole’s connection with its environment becomes a reflexive relation mediated by the self-referential loops that constitute the whole itself. This single property changes the nature and workings of the whole, dramatically strengthening the synthetic priority of the whole with respect to its parts. Self-referentiality paves the way to the third structural layer of this family of integral wholes, namely the fact that these wholes may present a dynamic of their identity (Poli, 2009).

In Section 2 above we set aside the case of identity as unable to provide information. We did not consider the case of those wholes that exist in the form of changing entities. Besides the customary identity of a formal type, these wholes also have some kind of dynamic identity. Organisms are cases in point; we are as well. Dynamic identity introduces an entirely new class of integral wholes, namely wholes whose dynamics may fulfill or fail to fulfill their potentialities. It is entirely appropriate for these wholes to consider the problem of their flourishing, i.e. of their capacity and possibility to unfold; one might say, to realize themselves. These wholes have interests, things matter to them (Smith, 1998).

Thus far, we have exploited the framework of parts and wholes as our sole framework of inquiry. However powerful and enlightening, though, it may obscure some necessary distinctions. To glimpse what the framework of wholes is not able to detect, one may ask oneself whether atoms or molecules or cells can really be takes as parts of, say, society. It obviously cannot be so. Something has therefore been missed. To see what has been missed, let us move to the next framework, the one provided by the theory of levels of reality.

5. Levels of Reality

The unity and the variety of the world is the outcome of the complex interweaving of dependence and inter-dependent connections and various forms of autonomy among the many items of which the world is composed. The distinction is widespread among three basic realms or regions (or strata, as we will call them) of reality. Even if the boundaries between them are differently placed, the distinction among the three realms of material, psychological and social phenomena is essentially accepted by most thinkers and scientists. A major source of discussion is whether inanimate and animate beings should be placed in two different realms (this meaning that there are in fact four and not three realms) or within the same realm. The latter option defends the thesis that a phase transition or something similar connects inanimate and animate items (on the theory of levels of reality see (Poli, The Basic Problem of the Theory of Levels of Reality, 2001), (Poli, First Steps in Experimental Phenomenology, 2006), (Poli, Levels of Reality and the Psychological Stratum, 2006), (Poli, Three Obstructions: Forms of Causation, Chronotopoids, and Levels of Reality, 2007).

Levels are distinguished by their categories. Material entities are different from, say, psychological entities because their unfolding needs different categorical frameworks. Leaving aside universal categories (those that apply everywhere), two main categorical situations can be distinguished:

  1. Types (Items) A and B are categorically different because the description (codification or modeling) of one of them requires categories that are not needed by the description (codification or modeling) of the other.
  2. Types (Items) A and B are categorically different because their description (codification or modeling) requires two entirely different groups of categories.

I term the two relations as respectively relations of over-forming and building-above. Strata or realms of reality are connected by building-above relations. That is to say, the main reason for distinguishing the different strata of reality as clearly as possible is that any of them is characterized by the birth of a new categorical series. The group of categories that are needed to analyze the phenomena of the psychological stratum is essentially different from the group of categories needed to analyze the social one, which in its turn requires a group of categories different from the one needed to analyze the material stratum of reality.

Over-forming (the type (a) form of categorical dependence) is weaker than building-above and it is used to analyze aspects of the internal organization of strata. Each of the three strata of reality has its specific structure. The case of the material stratum is the best known and the least problematic. Suffice it to consider the series atom-molecule-cell-organism (which can be extended at each of its two extremes to include sub-atomic particles and ecological communities, and also internally, as needed). In this case we have a clear example of a series that proceeds by levels of granularity. Compared to the material realm, the psychological and social ones are characterized by an interruption in the material categorical series and by the onset of new ones (relative to the psychological and social items). More complex types of over-forming are instantiated by them.

A terminological note may be helpful. I use the term ‘level’ to refer in general to the levels of reality, restricting the term ‘layer’ to over-forming relationships, and the term ‘stratum’ to building-above relationships. I shall eventually use the expressions ‘sub-layer’ and ‘sub-stratum’ when analysis requires them.

The question now arises as to how the material, psychological and social strata are connected together. The most obvious answer is that they have a linear structure. On this view, the social realm is founded on the psychological stratum, which in its turn is founded on the material one. Likewise, the material stratum is the bearer of the psychological stratum, which in its turn is the bearer of the social one. This point of view is part of the received wisdom. However, a different option is possible. Consider the possibility that material phenomena may act as bearers of both psychological and social phenomena. In their turn, psychological and social phenomena reciprocally determine each other. Psychological and social systems are formed through co-evolution, meaning that the one is the environmental prerequisite for the other (Luhmann, 1995).

This minimal introduction to the theory of levels is sufficient for our purposes. In fact, what we really need is the relation we have called building-above. What this shows is that the creativity of reality is such that it is able to produce entities that are both existentially dependent on lower-order entities and categorically orthogonal – i.e. entirely different – from them. To reformulate what I have just said with less intimidating wording: minds and societies are entities deeply different from material ones. However, we do not know of minds that flow away without their organic hosts, nor have we ever encountered and never will encounter ungrounded societies, i.e. societies without individual agents.

How can it be that there are entities that are both dependent and orthogonal? We have already called attention to the most relevant cue to begin answering such a demanding question. The cue was the remark that it makes no sense to claim that atoms, molecules, or cells are parts of societies, or minds for that matter. The fact that there is no proper part-whole connection between them seems to ruin our entire perspective. This is not so, however.

As a matter of fact, the impasse is more apparent than real, as shown by our stress on the connection of existential dependence between lower-order and higher-order entities. If these kinds of entities are connected by a relation of existential dependence and are not related by a part-whole connection, the only remaining option is that they are linked by a whole-whole relation. This latter kind of relation is much less-known than the much better-known part-whole relations. Very few scholars have been able to see the presence of whole-whole ties in the fabric of reality. The main reason for this widespread ‘blindness’ is that most thinkers do not have anything like a robust theory of levels of reality. The only scholar that has been able to delve into whole-whole relations has been the Dutch philosopher and theologian Herman Dooyeweerd, mainly in his magnificent and impossible four-volume New Critique of Theoretical Thought ( (Dooyeweerd, 1953), for a lucid introduction to Dooyeweerd see (Clouser, 2005), for an application to biology (Zylstra, 1992)).

6. Whole-Whole Ties

Dooyeweerd distinguished different types of enkapsis – his name for whole-whole ties – namely

  • Foundational enkapsis, such as the sculpture, and the block of marble from which it is made.
  • Subject-object enkapsis, such as a hermit crab and its shell.
  • Symbiotic enkapsis, such as clover and its nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
  • Correlative enkapsis, such as an environment and its denizens.
  • Territorial enkapsis, such as a city and its university (Basden, 2008, p. 89).

In this paper I shall restrict my remarks to the first type of enkapsis, the so-called foundational enkapsis. To grasp the framework addressed by foundational enkapsis more firmly, let us consider a few relevant cases, such as those exemplified by the following ties:

  • The marble—statue tie
  • The canvas—painting tie
  • The paper—water-color tie
  • The paper—novel tie
  • The CD—song tie

To simplify our inquiry we have chosen cases pertaining to the same sub-family of foundational enkapsis, namely the family of works of art. It is apparent that all the above five cases show that there is a connection between something that behaves as a bearer and something else that is borne by it. Furthermore, the features that describe the nature of the objects playing the role of bearer and the objects that are borne by them are widely if not entirely different. The physical properties of marble, canvas, paper and a CD, in fact, are remarkably different from the aesthetic properties of the statue, painting, water-color, novel and song. Let us call these properties the ‘nature’ or the ‘qualifying function’ of the respective objects.

On deeper analysis, however, an interesting subtlety surfaces. The five exemplifications above can be divided into two different groups distinguished by whether the bearer has some interaction with the object that it bears. CDs and the paper used to print a novel, in fact, have no kind of interaction with the higher-order objects they bear, as proved by the fact that the latter objects can be just as effectively borne by other bearers, such as mp3 or pdf files. Electronic versions of novels and songs are as authentic as paper-printed or CD-printed versions.

On the other hand, however, the tie between a water-color and the paper on which it is painted is more intimate, because the color penetrates into the paper’s fibers. It is well known, in fact, that water-colors should be painted on special kinds of paper which let the color penetrate into their fibers because this adds further layers of expressivity to the painting. Similarly, not all types of marble are equally suitable for a given statue, and the properties of the marble add something to the aesthetic properties of the statue.

As far as the interplay between an aesthetic object and its bearer is concerned, the canvas-painting case is somewhat intermediate between the two groups thus far discussed, in the sense that it is far less evident whether the bearer influences the object it bears. Another characteristic, however, places this latter case closer to the second group. The two groups distinguished can be seen from a different perspective, namely whether they are truly reproducible. The exemplifications belonging to the first group (songs and novels) can be reproduced as many times as one likes, and all of them remain true exemplifications of the same object. This further explains why the bearer is utterly irrelevant to the borne object: some bearer is needed in order to instantiate the object, but what kind of bearer is used is utterly immaterial. On the other, hand, the other group is composed of objects that cannot be truly reproduced, in the sense that properly speaking any reproduction is a fake. It may be a clone, but it is nevertheless a fake: it is a different object from the original. The non-reproducibility of this family of objects patently depends on the more intimate connection between the borne component and its bearer. As before, the canvas-painting case is somewhat intermediate between the two main cases, in the sense that a painting can be transferred to a different canvas (e.g. when the original is so damaged that the entire painting risks destruction). We can leave further complications aside, however, since we have already accumulated enough data to understand foundational enkapsis.

The analysis thus far has shown that there are at least some objects with a stratified structure organized in such a way that their strata are linked by a double connection: first, the higher stratum existentially depends on its lower stratum (it must be instantiated into some “matter”) and, second, the properties of the two strata are widely different if not utterly orthogonal. The further distinction between reproducible and non reproducible instances shows that other components may have to be taken into account.

The colors used by an artist are themselves material entities – and this explains why they can interact with the material surfaces on which they are placed. The features of the marble are explicitly exploited by the artist when she gives shape to her work; they are information that enters the fabric of the work of art.

The five cases we have seen are far from exemplifying authentic part-whole relations, because the two strata of the bearer and the borne have different natures. An authentic part-whole relation can work only between objects with the same nature (or qualifying function as Dooyeweerd would have said (Clouser, 2005, p. 286)). The existential dependence of the higher stratum on the lower one is thus far from being a sufficient condition for a part-whole relation. We need air to keep our selves alive, we existentially depend on it, but air is not one of our parts.

I shall follow (Clouser, 2005) by describing the greater wholes which include sub-wholes as “encapsulating” them, and thus call the greater whole “capsulate wholes”. Capsulation stands for the awkward enkapsis.

Capsulate wholes are everywhere. Molecules capsulate atoms, and cells capsulate molecules, and so on and so forth. Works of art capsulate their bearers. For all these cases, the nature (or qualifying function) of the capsulate whole overrides the nature of its capsulated sub-wholes (Clouser, 2005, p. 289).

7. Wholes, again

It is worth noting that the interest surrounding the analysis of parts and wholes that has become so popular during the past 20-odd years is almost completely focused on the relation “part-of”. The non-relational category of whole, on the other hand, has been far less frequently addressed, apparently for a number of good reasons. Not only are wholes more refractory to categorical scrutiny, but the viewpoint of wholes has been historically connected to visions that today do not have much currency, such as the theory of the so-called ethical state developed by Hegel and other idealist thinkers. It is also well-known that some of the most obviously outdated proposals advanced by Aristotle, notably his theories on the state and the family, and the consequent subordinate role of women and slaves, directly depended on his view of the state and the family as wholes.

The most straightforward reading of these issues can be aptly summarized thus: the family and the state are wholes, the husband/father/king is the formal representative of the family (“is” the family) or the state (“is” the state), and every other member of the family/state must be subordinated to him/it.

This reading critically depends on a specific assumption, however; namely that a natural whole always has (must have) a canonical representative. The issue is a rather subtle one and involves a number of problems we cannot discuss here (see (Poli, The Complexity of Anticipation, 2009) for some of the connected complications). Leaving many details aside, the main question is nevertheless apparent. Why should a whole have one unique individual representative? Only specific – i.e. non-generic – wholes do. In particular, only (totally, i.e. perfectly) hierarchical wholes have maxima. This shows that the theory of wholes cannot be restricted to those wholes that have canonical representatives.

One of the distinctive characteristics of modern society – as opposed to traditional forms of society – is precisely the transformation from an essentially hierarchical structure (well represented by the king) to a functional organization in which politics, law, economics, art, religion, science, and many more dimensions each has its own irreplaceable role to play. There is no natural way to confine functional structures within one single total hierarchy. The same applies to the family: both spouses are equally representative of the whole that is their family.

Hierarchical wholes are then but a tiny subsection of wholes, and it is simply wrong to conceive all wholes as hierarchical. Some are, many more are not.

8. Conclusion

This paper has begun to unfold the multi-layered complexity of the connections linking together analysis and synthesis. Even if much work has still to be done, the overall geography of the problems starts to exhibit a few landmarks which should be exploited further. Three appear worth mentioning in the paper’s final summary, namely:

  • The ontological relevance of windowing;
  • The typology of wholes, including their relationships and in particular the whole-whole family of connections; and
  • Levels of reality, or what can be termed an ontological theory of types.

These three headings, if addressed, may eventually contribute to the development of a more articulate ontology able to grasp deeper-lying aspects of reality.


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