VII. Part-Whole Relationship

This is the 7th in a series of postings on whole systems thinking.

Systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from parts to whole. The properties of a whole cannot be reduced to its parts because none of them have the capacity of the whole. A wristwatch keeps time and a smartphone has many functions because their parts have been specified and organized according to a particular purpose and design. A watch’s flywheel can’t keep time and a computer chip can’t make phone calls. Likewise, neither a violin player nor an entire assembly of accomplished musicians can produce a Mozart symphony without the specified design—the score—and a conductor to interpret it. System’s thinking then is about purpose and design in the first place. With the parts or members in place according to a design, the key to successful performance lies in the pattern of relationships.

Purpose is the reason for a system’s existence. In mechanical systems, such as a wind turbine, a person with a challenge and an idea envisioned an assembly of parts that would operate together to perform a function and provide a solution to his problem. The desired function is the system’s purpose. Physically speaking, in Nature everything lives to grow and reproduce. That’s the purpose of a cell, cedar tree, caterpillar, cat and the human body. As noted in a previous posting, one of the defining characteristics of life is autopoeisis, it makes more of itself.   

In The Systems View Of Life: A Unifying Vision, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luise observe that  “What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships. Therefore, the shift of perspective from the parts to the whole can also be seen as a shift from objects to relationships. For the system’s thinker, the relationships are primary.” And consideration of relationships requires a shift from quantity to quality.

Everything speaks its purpose through patterns. 

Michael Schneider 

An orchestra consisting of a large number of musicians does not guarantee a successful performance. One or more mistakes or a poorly tuned instrument can dampen the system’s outcome. In systems composed of living beings, where there’s a continuous exchange of matter and energy with the environment—and thought in this example—the dynamism of change requires attention to process in order for the system to function according to its design. It’s why the creation of any kind of performance requires lots of practice. I think of gymnasts and ice skaters who perform seemingly impossible feats, and how much time and energy they invested in the process of skill development and responding to feedback in order to produce a performance that lasts a few minutes. And where one misstep—system’s malfunction—can result in a breakdown.   

Contemplating The Personal and Social Aspects of  Whole-Part Relationships 

Questions regarding a “purposer” or original “designer” of life are best left to philosophers of science and religion. In the context of the whole-part relationship, we can observe that the capacity of the whole human being—that’s greater than the sum of its parts—is self-reflecting consciousness. And along with it comes self-determination to some extent. Being individual perceivers and thinkers, some of us will undergo some soul-searching to try and understand our reason for being, and others won’t give it a thought. 

As noted above, the key to a system’s successful performance lies in the pattern of relationships among the parts and other whole systems. In this instance, we’re talking about people. Having a purpose in life is like having a rudder. Rather than submit to the “currents” in life—the values and expectations of other people and society—a course is charted toward a given destination. In addition to giving life meaning, a purposeful life specifies a trajectory which is an aid to navigation and course-correction.

As a counselor of students, I would sometimes recommend a “gifts inventory” as the place to begin their discovery of purpose. As quickly as possible, without much thought, they would list their core competencies, their natural born gifts. After that, they listed the things that gave them joy. Not what made them happy or excited, activities that made them feel good about themselves, content, fulfilled. Those moments when time stood still and they were “in the flow.” Then they listed the issues, personal or social, that concerned them most, areas where they would like to make a difference. 

By prioritizing each of these areas they created a perspective that “seeded” the intellect so the inner voice (I prefer “soul”) would be primed to divulge the reason for incarnating. (All of this was an assignment, done in private and in a meditative state). The final and crucial step was to get quiet, connect with the deepest part of Self and ask: Why am I here? What am I here to do? They were to write whatever came and refine it into a concise “Purpose Statement.” Because the statement is deeply personal, they were never to share it with anyone. Insights that come from the core of our being should never invite feedback or comment. 

We noted above that in systems thinking relationships are primary. When we operate from purpose, we’re more selective in choosing our significant relationships and maintaining them. And because we want to surround ourselves with those who encourage and support us in realizing our purpose, there’s a commensurate shift from having many friends (as we did in high school) to having quality friends, those on the same or similar wavelength.

The purpose of existence as we have seen is growth, expansion… so the purpose of existing together is evolving together, progressing together, and the goal of this growth is fulfillment. 

            Ramana Maharishi

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