If You Got Here By Googling ???Nomological Holism’ I Love You

Jay Thompson
December 7, 2010
Comments 1

The first sentence of my last month of columns at this blog is:

What is it about winter bike rides, in that battered green pre-dawn color it gets out? Those screeching garbage trucks, bakery smells, trees shot full of whatever antifreeze keeps them alive this time of year, looming up in a suggestion of strange wholes? I climb hills and feel my lungs absolutely burn. The dream inserts itself between actions, even actions of mind.

I had to ride to the International District early last week to give a man a check. While I rode I tried to remember the second part of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”–you know the lines–

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands“

–and sorted, as I could, the distinction between nomological and property holism. Physics agrees, my handholding friends, parts are bound to wholes.

Philosophy writer Richard Healey (star stylist of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) defines nomological [Greek nomos, law or custom] holism as the belief that “some objects obey laws that are not determined by fundamental physical laws governing the structure and behavior of their basic physical parts.” So: a log burns down measurably differently than any one of its loosed carbon atoms. And property holism, that “some objects have properties that are not determined by physical properties of their basic physical parts.” So: knowing the water molecules’ motion alone won’t give us the river.

Is it an affirmation of laziness to say I’ve wanted to believe a sort of holism my whole pre-quantum-mechanics life? Which holism is to trust, anyway? Wondering what these two meant really, and if they even differ, I braked at a red light and had a moment of weirdly prolonged eye contact with a crow.

The crow, perched over a torn-up burger foil, had blank lizardy eyes, and feathers of matte gray-black (no smooth mussel-shell blue to him). I felt an embarrassed flush, like I was being watched by a skeptical professor, or by a fractious escaping atom. You know how any person you disagree with seems to live by laws you don’t recognize?

over the gulfs of dream flew a tremendous bird

A few months ago, I wrote here about Magritte and the purity at the heart of Surrealism, its quest for truth or the Mystery. There are people for whom the possibility of truth–not beauty, not goodness–is the thing that makes them wonder about eternity; I think now Magritte was one. And maybe visual art (the trembling of dissonant symbols showing us a way into “true reality”) is where Surrealism is still felt most deeply.

I’m starting to think English disinclines us from whatever the Mystery is, because we English talkers are better at fixing things than seeing wholes: “there’s a fish in the river” rather than “the river is.” (It inclines me toward Tamiko’s exciting first step toward a queer::eco::poetics, for Christ’s sake read it if you haven’t yet, then hold a new word in your head.) How many forms of “to be” are there in Russian, or Urdu?

By way of goodbye, I ask, How does a law differ from a property? This is not a Christmas sweater:

And, Does the property govern the visible whole, the law the invisible relation? This is the vest that keeps me safe as far as seen:

Off to my wet bikeride home. Till next time!

One thought on “If You Got Here By Googling ???Nomological Holism’ I Love You

  1. Ah, Jay, I love you and your incredible brain. I’m wondering if property holism somehow describes how society moves – in a way completely different then most citizens would move… So much to ponder in this post. I want to think more about how to see wholes (holes) through language. Thank you for your words, as always.

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