There are two kinds of wholes. One is the collection, like a basket full of stuff. It’s an artificial whole that someone put together. If you want to really know what is in the basket, you have to take the collection apart and examine each piece. The other kind of whole is an organic whole or unity, a whole that just came that way, like a tree or a person. You can try to understand a tree or person by examining their parts but you won’t really understand them unless you see them as the wholes they are.
We can understand the universe as a collection of parts that fit together and as an organic whole, oscillating between the two types of thinking and perceiving. Physicist and philosopher, Henri Bortoft, refers to these two ways of understanding as “unity in multiplicity”—that basket of stuff—and “multiplicity in unity”—the tree or the person. Analytical thinking understands things by taking them apart and putting them back together again. Aesthetic thinking (or holistic thinking) understands how things naturally flow together, how everything is a feature of the whole but not really separate from it. The leaf that grows out of the tree is not just a distinct part of the tree; leaf, branch, trunk, and roots are all one tree. A wave is not really distinct from the ocean.
Why is this concept important in Geek Philosophy? Because we need both analytical and aesthetic thinking. At a recent gathering of Geek Philosophy facilitators, we discussed a definition of art as anything you put a frame around, anything that the artist wants to guide their audience to see. Framing something, as in a still life painting, can be seen as both creating a whole as a collection of things and recognizing a whole that already exists. In the still life below (Vanitas, Pieter Claesz, 1628), each of the objects participates in a unity of meaning. It can be seen as both a collection and, because of the story it tells, as an organic whole.*
Stories are both a collection of events and an organic whole. When we practice our principle of Slow Reading-Close Reading, we examine the parts by looking closely at a single chapter, passage, or even a single word but we can’t really understand these parts without understanding the whole. Even if you don’t know how the story ends, you know that what you are reading will take its full meaning from what the story is when it is complete.**
A well-run Geek Philosophy discussion can be visualized as concentric circles. At yesterday’s Grey Havens Young Adult meeting, we talked about the Doctor, a Time Lord who doesn’t die but regenerates into what appears to be a completely new person who, nevertheless, still considers himself to be THE Doctor, a continuation of the same Doctor he was before he changed.*** The question of how this could be possible was the small, inner circle of the discussion. From there, the discussion led out and out to bigger circles, to questions of personal identity and ego continuity, the question of the existence of both the material and non-material self, the nature of time and consciousness, free will, and, finally, the relationship of consciousness, time, and the cosmos.
We arrived at the outer rim of the outer circle by thinking analytically and aesthetically, by looking at the whole through the parts and the parts through the whole. We did this by asking what every part of the Doctor’s story, every part of our own stories, and every theory we considered might mean. Considering what something means involves placing it in a wider context. Meaning is about relationship. It does not reveal itself in a vacuum.
We also endeavored to bring our whole selves to the discussion, including the facts and ideas we learned in school and from other sources, examples from the stories we found in books, webcomics, movies, TV shows and video games, as well as our own feelings and experiences. The result was eminently satisfying but it inevitably ended with even more questions because there really is no outer rim of the outer circle. The whole that is our universe is infinite and infinitely explorable. We hope that you will attend one of our discussions to explore it with us. Join us at any time because the adventure never ends!
Our next discussion is a Philosophy Think & Drink at Wibby Brewing in Longmont, Colorado on January 18 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Keep an eye on our Facebook page for multigenerational discussions and programs for children and teens.
*Some artists, like James McNeill Whistler and Georges Seurat, understood this concept so well that they created their own frames for their paintings, expressing both the organic wholeness of the composition and the possibility that art does not end at the frame. (For an example, see this female nude, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, 1893-1904.)
**This idea illustrates how our language makes it difficult to talk holistically about multiplicity in unity. The parts do not really “take” meaning from the whole. The parts and the whole story participate in the same meaning, even though we experience the story as a succession of scenes. Besides, is the story ever complete or does the road go ever on?