The whole and the parts, chance and necessity

In the following chapters, I talk about human nature and the mind. Being convinced that it is impossible to understand a concept outside of a certain context, here I want to talk about the context in which a mind and a human being can exist and function.

First of all, two fundamental terms must be defined: the “whole” and the “part”. I think that the concept of “whole” does not require an explanation, which would anyway be difficult, if not impossible, to provide in a non-tautological way. I also think that every “whole” is made up of “parts” and that everything is “part” of a “whole”. By saying “a whole” instead of “the whole” I mean that we can talk about various “everything”, that is to say, we can consider everything a whole divisible into parts. We can also say that each whole is part of a higher-level whole.

We do not know if there is something that is not divisible into parts, and we do not know if our universe is not part of a higher-level one, but these questions are not part of the purpose of this book. So let’s consider the universe (i. e. the world as we know it) as the higher-level whole and try to divide it into parts.

Carl G. Jung has divided reality into two parts: the plerome and the creature, meaning by the first term the whole of non-living beings (i.e. the mineral kingdom) and by the second term the whole of living beings (microorganisms, plants, and animals, including man).

Both the pleroma and the creature are not static but change continuously in space and time. For science, changes in the plerome are subject only to the laws of physics (for example, the two principles of thermodynamics). The changes of the creature, which is constituted by pleroma with particular characteristics, are instead subject to both the laws of physics and those of biology. For the most common religions, both the pleroma and the creature are also subject to the will of the gods, but in this book, I do not take into account religious thought on this subject.

According to determinism (understood as a philosophical current), nothing happens by chance, i.e. in a way not subject to some law. I believe that in the strict sense, i.e. at the molecular and submolecular level, this is true; however, for practical purposes, I believe that chance, understood as unpredictability, not only exists and acts, but also has a precise function within life, a decisive and maybe indispensable function for the conservation of species. It is enough to think of the randomness with which the genetic heritage of an unborn child is determined by randomly mixing the genes of the parents in sexual reproduction.

As far as the pleroma is concerned, as proof of the role of chance, it is enough to look at the variety of forms and dispositions of the craters of the moon, which do not follow any law except for their physical-chemical constitution.

We can, therefore, at least for practical purposes, state (quoting Jacques Monod) that the world is governed by chance and necessity, meaning by chance the unpredictability of certain events and by necessity the respect of physical and (as regards living beings) biological laws.

Physical necessities (or laws) are inescapable, that is, they cannot be avoided. Biological necessities (or laws), which in my opinion coincide with needs, are relative, i.e. they can be disregarded, but the failure to satisfy a need can cause the death of an organism or some of its organs or the temporary or permanent cessation of some of its functions.

A whole can be organized or disorganized. In the first case, its parts interact in such a way as to confer to the whole property not present in any of its parts; in the second case, the whole is an amorphous set of parts without particular relations and interactions between them. An unorganized whole has no properties or functions which are not already present in its parts. An organized whole is commonly called a system.

An object can be part of more than one system, that is, of more than one context. Therefore, the reality is complex and inextricable, and any simplification of it is arbitrary.

We can define the human organism as a system constituted in turn by lower-level systems (which we can call subsystems). We do not know if aggregations of organisms such as humans, animals, or plants constitute a system, that is, an organized whole. We do know, however, that they interact in a (more or less) symbiotic way. Therefore we can define the biosphere as an ecological whole.

The human mind is thereby part of a whole that is the human organism, that is, a specimen of the species Homo Sapiens, which in turn is part of the terrestrial biosphere. This is made up of interdependent living beings and is subject to the laws of physics and biology, and a certain degree of randomness. Chance is partly necessary to ensure the conservation and evolution of species (in the sense of more resilient biodiversity) and partly unnecessary or potentially harmful.

Next chapter: Meaning, method and limits of knowledge.