The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.
I have been contemplating this ‘common knowledge’ for some time now. “The whole”, of course, implies an order or arrangement, a constellation of “parts” whose behavior and being as a whole is a) not predictable from summing them up and b) can not be understood from the level of a part or on the level of a summation of these parts.
Take a car for instance, when all its parts are arranged properly and it’s fueled up, you can sit down in this machine-whole and drive it anywhere – provided you have a license. If the same car with the the very same parts has crashed, maybe because someone without a license drove, it’s not a whole anymore, its a heap, its the sum of its parts.
The whole of a human being doesn’t have parts, I’d say, but members. As a very flexible whole it can do without quite a few of its members before it becomes a heap of cells and organs. This leads me to the following restatement of the more general statement above,
A living whole is exponentially more than the sum of its members.
A living whole can also be aware of actually being such a whole, of being a self. This happens to be so with human beings and as far as we can tell with other beings as well, apes, whales and dolphins, elephants, crows and magpies, and probably many others. And if we consider the members of our awareness to be voices (sub-personalities) than what we call our consciousness can also be much better understood as a whole…
A group, a business, an organisation is a whole that is even beyond what can be said about living wholes. This whole is made up of living wholes which – once it has achieved a high coherence as described in some of my recent blogs about the living field – is as profoundly beyond living wholes as living wholes are beyond mechanical wholes. So that
A living field whole is incomparably more than the sum of its wholes.
My heart is bumping as I write this because right now a conference is happening in Brazil (State of the World Forum) that we – Gaiaspace/Gaiasoft – are providing a social and collaboration network for; my heart is bumping because what I’m saying here has consequences for all the world changing movements that my friends and I care so much about, I believe.
As the climate and global financial crisis is challenging mankind and as large social movements are emerging that want to tackle these problems and implement solutions, I still find them very much ‘married’ to the idea that if the sum of people doing ‘the right thing’ were only large enough everything would change, everything would turn out good.
In this thinking we need to get the VIPs, stars, captains of industry, “the most high impact people” as someone recently put it, to show the way – get the attention of the media, the business community, the governments and when the sum of people is large enough change will happen.
Only, it won’t. Not really. Because this is the old way that got us into the trouble we’re in. It is not really engaging citizens, it is recruiting them for a cause that’s being shown to them, regarding them basically as consumers, as some kind of follower. O, sure, it gets a certain number of people enthusiastic, the idealists that engage gladly – and, if watered down enough, it can even become a main stream. But this is not the transformation we need, it is green fashion – which, to be sure, is much better than the much more wasteful fashion…
The main fallacy of this ‘large sum’ view, that has until very recently been mine and still in many ways is by habit, is that it believes in a “tipping point” that will be reached when the right sum of people lives the change that needs to happen. And even if we assume that this doesn’t need to be a majority but if we “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has, ” as Margret Mead put it, we’re still advancing the idea that it needs a certain sum of people, and it needs people with high impact and a lot of clout to get us on the right track.
We all know, of course, that the right track needs to include a radical ecological transformation of humankinds’ behavior, and this of necessity entails a radical social transformation. Because as long as it pays to be ecologically irresponsible and exploit human and other living beings, abuse the air and the soil, waste precious common goods, as long as in fact large fortunes can be made that can buy “the most impact people”, even a large sum of people that transform personally is not going to affect a real change in our living world. What needs to transform are communities. Never mind individual change, which might still be great or even necessary, what we really need is the transformation of wholes.
I do not wish to criticize my fellow travelers that have, for instance in the US, paved the way for a president that clearly understand the issues we have to deal with. I do not wish to put anybody at fault that is doing their very best to help transition this world to a healthier and more humane era; quite the contrary. I want us to look at the possibilities that emerge when we take a hard look at the question, “How can we help Wholes to transform?”
And, since we hope to provide leadership to support this transformation, we need to also address the question, “How to turn a sum of people from all walks of life in a local community into a Community, a Whole that is more conscious of itself as a Whole?” [I'll use Community with a capital C to distinguish it from what is ordinarily called a community, which, in a way is a sum of people with partially similar interests, and this is much more a heap than a whole.]
I do not have an answer to these questions, but I do have a few indications what we might want to take into account:
- A Community is first of all a feeling being and not a doing.
- A Community is not a goal or a means, it is an emerging and continually self-renewing Whole.
- A Community is capable of implementing fast, large scale, positive transformation with great ease.
- A Community is (also) nourished by meaningful conversations about itself.
- A Community, equipped with state of the art social tools, rapidly expands by inclusion of and being included in other Communities.