We’re often told that certain wholes are “more than the sum of the parts.” We hear this expressed with reverent words like “holistic” and “gestalt,” whose academic tones suggest that they refer to clear and definite ideas. But I suspect the actual function of such terms is to anesthetize a sense of ignorance.
We say “gestalt” when things combine to act in ways we can’t explain, “holistic” when we’re caught off guard by unexpected happenings and realize we understand less than we thought we did.
For example, consider these two questions, the first “subjective” and the second “objective”:
- What makes a drawing more than just its separate lines?
- What makes a tower more than separate blocks?
Why does the “objective” question seem less mysterious? Because we have good ways to answer it — in terms of how things interact. To explains how towers work, we just point out how every block is held in place by its neighbors and by gravity. This explanation seems almost self-evident to adults. However, it did not seem so simple when we were children, and it took each of us several years to learn how real-world objects interact. We regard such knowledge as “obvious” only because we cannot remember how hard it was to learn.
Why does it seem so much harder to explain the “subjective” question? Many people assume that “subjective” questions are impossible to answer because they involve our minds. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be answered. It only means that we must first know more about our minds.
“Subjective” questions are also based on how things interact. The difference is that here we are not concerned with objects in the world outside, but with processes inside our brains.
In other words, the question about the drawing is actually quite technical. It asks us to explain what happens among the agents in our minds. But this is a subject about which we have never learned very much — and neither have our sciences. Such questions will be answered in time. But it will prolong the wait if we keep using pseudo-explanation words like “holistic” and “gestalt.”
— The Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky