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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 21-Jun-15


Sunday 21-May-15

When do the parts become the whole?

Margaret Thatcher, the notorious UK Conservative prime minister of the 1980s, once said 'There is no such thing as society.' While this may be seen as a heartless view, there is a strange truth about it, though only in the sense that 'society' it's less tangible. Yet it is very real, nevertheless, and we each gain from it. Just imagine if you couldn't walk down the road without fear for your life.

But how does society start? When does a group of people gel and start helping one another in an organized way? Is it when they have their first public meeting? Is it when they establish or enforce explicit social rules? It is a tricky question. Looking at it in a reversed way, you might also try taking people out of a group until society vanishes.

The challenge can be applied in all kinds of other situations. When, for example, does a brain become a mind? And how many pieces can you take off a car before it is no longer a car?

The boundary, it seems, between a cohesive whole with its own identity and a set of parts that lack that wholeness, can be rather vague and difficult to delineate.

A way of finding that elusive edge is to first identify essential elements of the whole and then look for the point at which they appear or disappear. The mind, for example, thinks, so when neuronal activity can be classified as thinking, then mind is beginning. It is not all that easy, though. If a car is defined as transport, a faulty that stops the engine does not stop it being a car. It gets trickier again with the notion of society where there may be debate about what exactly it is.

An important insight is that within a whole, the parts are interconnected, often in complex ways. And this is where the whole is made. Minds are not neurons but interconnected neurons. A car is not a kit of parts but those parts working in harmony.

And yet, despite the difficulties, we ignore the whole at our peril, including in changing minds. When you want to sell, you have to consider how the whole system buys. Sales fail when the sales person forgets corporate influences on the buyer. Teachers trip up when they miss the social structure of the class. And you can get into trouble when you think you can pull on individual levers without causing surprising effects elsewhere.

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