Parts and Wholes

We’re often told that certain wholes are “more than the sum of their 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.

What makes a tower more than separate blocks, or a wall more than a set of many bricks? Every block/brick is held in place by its neighbors and gravity. Why is a chain more than its various links? To explain why chain-links cannot come apart, we can demonstrate how each would get in its neighbors' way.

In graphical diagrams of such physical situations, the edges drawn between nodes are – implicitly or explicitly – labeled, qualified relations. An arrow is not a mystery – it is, for example, gravitational force.

Sometimes, giving names to things can help by leading us to focus on some mystery. It’s harmful, though, when naming leads the mind to think that names alone bring meaning close.

With Linked Data, all edges relating parts are labeled, and those labels are things, not strings. Such discipline can help us to not fool ourselves.

This post was adapted from a note sent to my email list on Machine-Centric Science.
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