More on the priority of wholes

Kristor has published an important piece on the ontological priority of wholes to parts.  I had been fumbling around with related ideas, but had not gotten nearly as far.  I still haven’t in fact.  Kristor seems to possess a sort of metaphysical vision that I lack.  Or maybe he just doesn’t show us his work.  Either way, it often takes me much laborious thinking to cross the distance of one of his “therefore”s.  What follows will be longer and cover less ground than the above post, but perhaps it will help others like me whose minds need to move in small steps.  There are some considerations that strongly favor the ontological priority of parts, what I shall be calling “atomism”, but I will argue that they leave some room for the reality and even priority of wholes.

Two things I’ve gathered from modern analytic philosophers.  First, causality isn’t really in the laws of nature as we know them, the equations allowing inference in either direction.  Second, in emergent orders, the small scale causes the larger scale, i.e. parts are ontologically prior to wholes.  The temperature of a gas is caused by the kinetic energy of its molecules, not the molecular motion caused by the macroscopic value of temperature.  My thoughts are caused by the firing of neutrons, rather than my thoughts causing those neutrons to fire.  Now, a mischievous non-philosopher like me might wonder, if we are to ontologically flatten correlations, always putting the left hand and right hand side of an equation on an ontological level–anything else being premodern mysticism–why this should not also apply to emergence.  This has tended to be my own way of thinking:  let us drop ontological priority altogether, abandon our atomist dogmatism.

One might ask if we could even reverse the direction of ontological reduction, pose a wholist dogmatism that makes the whole the entire cause of its parts.  This runs into two huge obstacles which together constitute the strengths of the atomist position we wish to overcome.  The first problem is that of degrees of freedom:  the independent variables needed to specify the state of a system.  The whole will have one set, the collection of parts another.  The map between them is seldom one-to-one, but usually one-to-many:  many microstates correspond to the same macrostate, a degeneracy quantified by the entropy.  Thus, a parcel of gas can be described by a few thermodynamic variables, whereas the description of the state of its constituent molecules, in terms of classical phase space or (even worse) a multi-particle quantum state vector, contains enormously more information.  One would expect that if A is the cause of B, the degrees of freedom in B should be able to be explained through A, while the reverse may not be true.  Generally, the properties of wholes can be obtained from those of parts by averaging/coarse-graining away microscopic degrees of freedom, but there is no inverse process to recover the remaining microscopic information from the properties of the whole.  There can’t be, or else the microscopic system actually would not have more degrees of freedom; it would have the same number, and the remaining variables would not really be independent.

Well, could we be daring and assert that this is true?  Suppose an isolated collection of molecules actually doesn’t have a definite state vector (not just isn’t in an eigenstate of this-or-that observable, which is old news).  All the real information is in a density matrix with coefficients set by macroscopic variables and equilibrium conditions.  This won’t work either, because the atomist can now pull out his second killer argument.  “You go around monkeying with quantum mechanics because you want to say that tables and chairs are more real than protons and electrons, but watch out–it doesn’t end there.  You are part of an ecosystem, of a planet, of a galaxy.  Logically, the cascade ends only with the universe itself.  If no degree of freedom is real except what affects the overall state of the universe, than your own existence or nonexistence is inadmissible as real information.  You don’t exist!”

So, atomist reductionism might work, but a “retaliatory” reduction in the other direction won’t.  However, the above work has not been wasted, because it has set us up to pose a more modest wholism.  Say we have whole A with N degrees of freedom (call them a_1, a_2, a_3, …, and denote the whole set by a_i) made of B, the set of all A’s parts, having M>N degrees of freedom (call them b_i).  One can determine a_i from b_i.  One cannot determine b_i from a_i, but one can constrain b_i from a_i.  Given a set of a_i, the admissible b_i must lie on a subset, some sort of hypersurface, in the state space of possible b_i.  We have thus divided the b_i space into equivalence classes [a_i], and there is (by construction!) a one-to-one map between a_i and [a_i].  We now have the symmetry we need, and we can appeal to our prior metaphysical commitments to decide which way, if either, to assign the direction of causality.  Atomism would say that b_i determine [a_i] determine a_i.  Moderate wholism would say that a_i determine [a_i], while the remaining degrees of freedom on the hypersurface [a_i] are determined by the parts, from their remaining intrinsic actuality.

In fact, there is nothing artificial about this way of thinking.  As an example, we may say that our gas has a determinate total energy, so that the state of the molecules must lie on a particular surface in phase space; this is just what we do in the familiar microcanonical ensemble.  Our atomist prejudices lead us to assume that this energy is an effect of the individual molecules’ independent motions, but taking macro-quantities as fixed from above is actually a better description of what one does mathematically in this and the other ensembles.  As another example, it is quite natural to separate out center of mass motion from the relative motion of parts.  Neither “determines” the other.  By Galilean invariance, we may say that the former is determined at a wholistic level with no violence to the evolution of the remaining, microscopic degrees of freedom.  (A possible implication:  variables at the macro-level may often appear as symmetries / conserved quantities at the micro-level.)

To have a meaningful whole, it must be possible to describe the evolution of the whole strictly on its own level.  The micro-level must average / renormalize away.  Thermodynamics and hydrodynamics are only the simplest cases of this.  Biology and psychology also have their proper orders of intelligibility.  I can identify reasons for my actions.  On the other hand, my neurons are controlled by the laws of physics.  Is my reasoning an illusion?  Are my neutrons pushed around in violation of physical laws by psychic forces?  Both of these are implausible.  However, presuming my brain is a properly-ordered whole, certain degrees of freedom of my neuronal state will “factor up” to form my macroscopic mental state, whose evolution only depends on its prior states and not on where in particular my neurons are in their hypersurface of possible states given my macroscopic mental state.  Thus, although my brain may be more than just a computer, moderate wholism can apply even to computers.  One can understand a program from its own logic without having to think about electrons moving in semiconductors.  That doesn’t mean that the algorithm is psychically pushing those electrons around.  The electronic degrees of freedom that don’t “factor up” don’t determine the ones that do.  They’re separate degrees of freedom.  Similarly, it’s no problem that I don’t feel particularly constrained as a part of the universe as a whole because my own state matters so little to its.

I have not argued that moderate wholism is true, only that it could be true.  It would break decisively with atomist metaphysics in that wholes would not fully derive from their parts.  As causally prior where their realm intersects with that of their parts, wholes would have their own distinct existence.  They would not just be a coarse-grained description of a micro-world considered to be ontologically prior in a categorical sense.

Which I think has something to do with what Kristor was saying.

15 thoughts on “More on the priority of wholes

  1. Pingback: More on the priority of wholes | @the_arv

  2. “My thoughts are caused by the firing of neutrons, rather than my thoughts causing those neu[t]ron[e]s to fire.”

    No they’re not. If that were true, there could be no out-of-body experiences, including near-death experiences There could be no occasions when a patient in an induced coma could relate converstations that nurses had while working at his bedside. If you know any ICU nurses, you will probably know that such things occur, inexplicably.

    The larger problem is a logical one. Try to prove it. Try to get from neurones to experience. Experience is a different order of reality. In order to cover the nakedness of such almost universally accepted nostrums, proponents resort to what are, in effect, magical incantations; “emergence” for example.

    • In my recurring experimentation with sleep/hypnosis/meditation, I’ve run into the problem of direct subjective experiences causing metaphysical distortions. For the sake of the human psyche, we need to account for this in our system. Especially as a matter of belief and motivation.
      On the other hand, weed does mostly the same thing, and we can’t let every random pothead decide what’s real and what’s not. Maybe we need a designated pothead, though he’d have to study a lot…

  3. Pingback: More on the priority of wholes | Reaction Times

  4. Wow, Bonald, thanks. I’m honored that you deemed my post worthy of so much work on your part.

    I think you are correct in your criticism that I don’t show my work. I do this unconsciously, in part because in thinking and writing I am employing a slew of philosophical skeleton keys, each of which was at first very difficult for me to understand, but which I now deploy without noticing. I have over the last year or two been trying to notice and explain these keys.

    In thinking about your post I realized that there is another skeleton key to explain: becoming is transtemporal. I’ve mentioned this a few times, but have never picked it out as a topic in its own right. This I should probably do in a separate post, that forms part of the series of Philosophical Skeleton Keys. But for now, let this suffice, as it responds directly to your analysis, and plays an important supporting role in the reasoning that undergirds my conclusion that wholes are ontologically prior to their parts, and also in specifying what that priority means.

    I can identify reasons for my actions. On the other hand, my neurons are controlled by the laws of physics. Is my reasoning an illusion? Are my neurons pushed around in violation of physical laws by psychic forces? Both of these are implausible.

    Exactly. That’s the mind/body problem right there. I struggled for decades with that quandary. Do the neurons push the mind, or does the mind push the neurons? Finally I realized that I had been treating efficient causation as the only sort; that, i.e., my analysis of the problem was implicitly materialist. And the reason it was materialist was that I was treating the relation of mind to body as if it were like a transfer of momentum (e.g.) between two particles, in which A pushes B over the course of three distinct states of affairs – which is to say, three distinct historical moments:

    1. The moment when A is moving and B is still.
    2. The moment when A hits B, or they somehow or other interact, exchanging their momenta.
    3. The moment when A and B are both moving, B having taken on some of A’s momentum.

    But it’s much simpler than that. The mind does not push the neurons, nor vice versa. Rather, the state of the neurons at time A is a historical manifestation of the state of the mind at A; it is the outward appearance to our ex post observation of the state of the mind at A.

    Ex post observations are the only sort creatures can have. We can’t see where and how a thing now is; we can see only where and how it has just been. So our observation of where and how the neurons have just been is an observation of where and how the mind has just been.

    The reason that ex post observations are the only sort possible to us is that we can possibly observe something only if it is definite. We can, i.e., observe only what has finished becoming, and now is definitely what it is, and not something different. Until a thing has finished becoming, until an event has finished happening, it can have no definite character. One clear implication is that it can have no definite location, or relation to other prior events.

    But to say that a thing has no definite location is to say that it is nowhere. It is to say that it is not yet situated in the extensive continuum. And this is to say that it is not yet at a certain time; for times are registered by differences of states of affairs from one past moment to another past moment – which is to say, by motions.

    Until a thing has finished happening, it is nowhere, and nowhen. Nor does it have any other definite properties: no charge, momentum, etc. It does not yet actually exist, so as to have properties. So, no worries about violations of conservation laws.

    So anyway, this moment of your experience, in which something is now happening and coming to be, is not happening in time. It can’t have a corporeal manifestation yet, and can’t have a temporal or spatial locus, because as still happening, it is still indefinite.

    The corporeal manifestation in the extensive continuum of a completed moment of becoming is not a different event from that moment. It is rather the outward aspect of that moment. The outward aspect of that moment appears, not after that moment, but simultaneously with it.

    So: the mind feels x, and the neurons take up a certain state: the state of the neurons when the mind is feeling x.

    The ontological priority of whole to part, then, is not a priority in time. The whole does not act so as to push its parts around. Rather, the act of the whole is evident in the motions of its parts, which are an outward aspect of its inward state.

    I hope that helps, and that it has not added a raft of new difficulties to your plate.

    One other thing: while the analysis of gases is illustrative, and helpful, I doubt that gases are wholes.

    • I believe that is the ontological equivalence suggested in the article, where neither the whole nor the part is given priority.
      Of course, the most commonsense approach is to regard priority as that which is closest to the observer. But some might find that cynical, maybe we should say that God is the most prior ontological real, followed by human observation. (Though this has implications regarding the causation of supernatural events. Are they caused by angels acting directly, or through humans? I won’t bother to comment one way or another.)

    • Hello Kristor,

      Thank you for your response. I admit to being baffled by this claim that things don’t exist in space or time until they have completed becoming. Do “things” here mean objects or events? I appear to exist at a rather definite place and time at this moment, for example. I’m very slow on these matters, so perhaps rather than discussing this issue here, it would be better to wait until you decide to write up your transtemporality skeleton key for everyone.

      In any case, I probably caused unnecessary confusion by bringing evolution, and therefore temporal succession, into the discussion (although I do think this idea of evolution intelligible on its own level is an important part of meaningful wholes) when that’s not really the issue. Even if my present state is indeterminate, one could still ask about the state of my mind at a given time and the sum of the states of my cells at the same time: which is the cause of the other? This is what I was trying to answer. At least, I was trying to show that the complete explanatory priority of my constituent cells is not the only possible answer.

      • “Thing” as we usually employ the term – as indicating an actual object of our perception, as distinct from, say, a form – means an event that, having finished becoming, is now a definite, concrete object, and thus available to the apprehension of other newly becoming events. This I now realize depends upon yet another heretofore unnoticed skeleton key: objects that perdure through time, such as persons or organisms, are each series of disparate events linked by their essential identity and differing only according to their accidents, and it is these events that are the true atoms of experience and of being. Each such event is a quantum of action; an act of being, effected by becoming something definite, which as definite is therefore definitely this and not that. Only as definite can something have any properties at all, for until a thing – an event – is completed, its character cannot be apprehended by other subsequent events.

        You rightly feel that you are now happening at a definite place and time because your feelings are all about things that have already happened, and are in the past. Part of becoming – one of the very first parts of becoming – is taking up a locus within a causal system. That locus has a light cone, a world line. The character of the vertex of that light cone constitutes the actual world of a novel occasion of becoming.

        That seems utterly crazy, I know. But reflect that you did not procure this moment of your existence, but rather arrived in it willy nilly. It was furnished to you, together with its light cone, its actual world. It is all … gratuitous. Your becoming just when and where you find yourself becoming right now is then Providential.

        Even if my present state is indeterminate, one could still ask about the state of my mind at a given time and the sum of the states of my cells at the same time: which is the cause of the other? This is what I was trying to answer.

        We appear to be more or less on the same wavelength about this. All I would add about the priority of whole to part is contained in two points:

        1. You need to have a whole first – logically first – in order to have any parts of it that are truly parts of it. If the parts are first, then the “whole” that they constitute is no more a whole than a cloud or a breeze is a whole. The priority of the whole is here formal and final rather than efficient. The whole does not conjure the particularity of the parts, like a spell summoning up demons from the vasty deep; rather, the parts are particular in virtue of the whole. The fact of the whole is evident in the participation of its parts therein.

        2. The whole is not the cause of the sum of the states of the parts. Rather, the sum of the states of the parts – and the states of all those parts, taken individually, insofar as they are informed by the form of the whole – are the outward, objective aspect of the whole of which they are parts. The sum of the states of the parts is the only information we have about the inward state of the whole. It is as it were the outward fossil or trace of the whole, or its spoor.

  5. There is this whole multilevel systems approach in biology which the “real scientists’ hate, along with group selection in evolution:

    It’s not the ontological primacy of either the part or the whole, but that there are levels of interaction in a hierarchically ordered system, and signals can go from on higher levels on down to simple levels, and vice versa.

  6. Bonald: on a note regarding philosophy of physics, I’d go further. Our atomist prejudices, drilled into us from the earliest education, predispose us to reject the wholeness of a system, and we often conceive of system descriptions as pertaining primarily to individual particles. But that is, must be false, and a misunderstanding of the philosophy behind both modern and classical physics, where the system is necessarily primary.

    You can almost think atomistically with a Newtonian formulation, but move to configuration or phase space and you are necessarily constructing a systemic whole that determines (or, in the case of QM, probabilistically determines) the action of its parts. Talking of the Lagrangian or total energy as though they pertain only to indivdual particles whose relations are accidental is absurd; instead, the equations of the whole govern the motion of the parts.

    • Then, there’s Wolfgang Smith’s view that the physical world exists only in potency and that the ‘corporeal’ world, which is what is truly in act is not at all reducible to physical particles following state vector collapse.

    • Rhetocrates, I quite agree! It will probably seem to you that I did a lot of unnecessary work here, but I wanted to evade replies of the sort “Well, yes, admittedly the state vector is a wholistic thing, but really it’s nothing but a massive combination of single-particle states, so atomism is still true.”

  7. If atomism, what are the atoms? If they behave in an intelligible way, they must have structure which per atomism must be a result of their constituent parts. Attributing any causal powers to atoms themselves seems a violation of atomism. It’s turtles all the way down.


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