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  • Alexander Novack

What is syndicate?

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

That's the wrong question. Even, "What is a syndicate?" is the wrong question. "What is {Syndicate}?" is a better question, but it's still the wrong question.


So long as you are asking the wrong questions, no answer will be the right one.


By the time you get to the end of this post, assuming you have the wherewithal, you will at least be asking the right question.


Before you can ask the right question, you need to figure out what's the problem. Salient questions are those that are compelled by genuine puzzles. A genuine puzzle is a phenomenon whose constituents are uncontroversial, and yet, when those constituent facts are put together, the overall phenomenon makes no sense to us. In such cases, we do not dispute that the occurrence is happening or that its attributes are real, but we cannot work out why.


To take a simple example, sunlight passing through a transparent medium, such as glass, is an all-too-common event. When white light passes through, e.g., certain shaped pieces of glass, such as a prism, it comes out the other side in a spectrum of colors. This, again, is an ordinary sight to see. However, red light passing through the same prism only ever comes out red (ditto for blue or yellow light). The incurious mind does not take pause here. People will accept and take for granted strange phenomena (not even forming awareness of the strangeness) just because these phenomena are so, but only a few will ever stop to query, "Why are they so?" Isaac Newton was one such inquisitor. He asked, "Why should transparent glass have any effect whatsoever on the color of light, let alone just one color of light?" And, there began one of the most significant enterprises of physics.


The import of that event was not just the asking of the right question, but the lamentable fact no one ever thought to ask it beforehand, though untold numbers of humans had seen the very same phenomena countless times. People looked but they did not see.


It takes a peculiar type of mind and state of mind to recognize the very existence of a puzzle. It is arguably the hardest task, more so even than the formulation of the answer to the question compelled by the puzzle. Oddly, the more basic and obvious the puzzling fact, the deeper and more intractable the puzzle.


Among the most fundamental of facts which arouses the deepest of puzzles is that there are things which persist as themselves over time. This puzzle needs to be differentiated from other, less mysterious mysteries, such as: "Why did something come to be how it is?" (which is asking after the causal origin story of a thing). It also needs to be differentiated from more extreme mysteries, such as "Why something rather than nothing?" as applied to the totality of the extant universe. That last question could be answered (perhaps unsatisfyingly) with: "Brute fact." But, the question of why things should persist as themselves for some period of time is an especially tricky one, since it can't be answered by a cause-and-effect story, nor can it be dismissed by asserting brute fact. It can't be answered by a cause-and-effect story because such causal accounts already assume things being themselves over a period of time. "A caused B which, in turn, caused C," assumes the stable existences of A, B, and C (as A, B, and C, respectively) for the period of time in which they are causally interacting. The answer of "brute fact" is inapplicable to the question "Why should a thing be itself?" since brute factuality, to the extent it applies to anything, already would apply to the elements or parts making up the thing in question.


For instance, consider yourself. You call yourself "Me," and you are certainly convinced, with good reason, that you are a unitary being, one deserving of a name, no less. Yet, there are some disquieting facts that must be coped with. If you look closely at yourself (looking closely is, generally, a good way to come to know what a thing is), perhaps under a microscope, you'll find many, individual microorganisms. Each one is its own living animal, capable, under the right conditions, of living apart from the others. And, while each microorganism neighbors other, individual microorganisms, nothing externally compels any one organism to be where it is or to do what it does. We could, without much incident, pluck that one cell out of you, and you'd carry on just fine without it (and it could, if placed in the right environment, carry on just fine without you). So, was it really you, afterall? You might say "No! I still feel just as complete of a self after the removal of the cell as I did before! So, whatever I was before, I still am now, with all the same attendant properties and capabilities." It could be imagined that, one cell at a time, we systematically repeat the experiment, removing that cell, determining that you feel no differently at its absence, and, then, replace it back into your body and moving on to the next cell. Let's suppose, with each individual cell's removal, you declare that you are no differently you before it is replaced again. Each cell could be deemed inessential.


Here's the problem: Suppose someone simultaneously removed at once all those "inessential" microorganisms that are currently in your corpus and did so in just such a way that each cell could separately be kept alive and healthy, in a petri-dish, say. Would that be killing you or not? Before disassembly of all your cells, there was nothing more to your physical being than this very same collection of cells. In disassembly, nothing that was you has been lost or even harmed. If you are nothing more than the collection of your cells, and if those cells are all kept alive, then couldn't one argue that you exist and are still alive?


You might protest that the person you were before disassembly had indeed been killed by the disassembly, despite the preservation of the cells, since it is the joint and coordinated operations of these many microorganisms that makes you who you are, over and above the microorganisms themselves. When they act together in a particular coordinated fashion, then the self that is you emerges from the mere collection, and this self is, therefore, greater than any mere collection of its parts.


Not so fast, buster. We could imagine each cell, alone it's petri-dish, being made to coordinate just as before disassembly with all the other cells, alone in their petri-dishes, such that all cells continue en toto to operate in the same coordinated fashion, but without proximity. For instance, astute couriers (such as little nano-machines) could carry chemical inputs and outputs from one petri-dish to the next so that, overall, exactly the same chemical operations are carried out as before, though now separated by a distance. Would your self (that you typically take for granted) be resurrected in this case? Where would "you" be located, spread over these many petri-dishes?




Obviously, whatever makes you, you involves more than just your material substance or the operations of that substance. What, then, is this missing ingredient? What more is there to you than your substance and its operations? What has been left out or unaccounted for? It would appear you are a gestalt that is truly greater than the sums of your parts and operations of those parts. But, what, exactly, is it that makes for this gestalt, over and above the parts/operations, since there doesn't appear to be anything in the remainder?


This is a mereological mystery. At what point do parts make a whole and why?


Everything in the universe, so far as we've discovered, is a thing made of parts. Those parts are decomposable into further parts. And, as we continue to discover ever smaller parts, there is the very real possibility that this division of wholes into parts could continue "all the way down," without limit. Some philosophers have proposed eliminativism, simply denying anything truly exists as its own whole thing, but instead, there are only parts that exist thing-wise. For example, eliminativists would propose there are no pianos, in fact, just tiny bits that are arranged piano-wise.


I'm not quite that skeptical or reductionist. On the other hand, one could try the opposite strategy from eliminativism which starts with the assumption of parts and argue, instead, that the assumption should happen in the other direction, viz. whole beings are taken to exist fundamentally, as much as anything exists, and that these beings meet the criteria for whole-being-hood regardless of parts. For instance, a piano is anything that satisfies a set of piano predicates (let's assume these predicates unproblematic), and we need not have to account for it in terms of compositionality. That might seem like a tempting solution, except it really suffers from the same defects as eliminativism. In this case, it commits us to an ontological accounting that makes wholes disconnected from their parts. Yet, it is pretty obvious that this is not the case, especially in the way science has developed, wherein good explanations of wholes typically involve reference to the parts.


Whatever the answer, I contend, that answer should not be at the expense of parts to the wholes, or wholes to the parts. It should comfortably accommodate both.


I have a suggested path to an answer to this greater mystery of being a whole-being emerging from part-beings. Consider the example of our supreme coffee and bakery shop.


In the case of Syndicate, we create art out of edible materials. When we first started, about 7 months ago, we didn't know who we were. We were a company in name only. Sure, we had ideas about who we hoped we'd become. But, at the start, there were just a handful of individual people, and there was no genuine whole-being. But, at some later point in time, our creations became a toe-hold point of identifying who we are as Syndicate. Now, when people ask: "What is Syndicate?" (rather than tell our customers they've asked the wrong question) I instinctively answer them ostensively, pointing to our creations. We are the only ones who create just these things in just these ways. There are other shops which, I'm sad to say, are "generic" and lack identity. Do they exist? I'd say only as a legal entity, not a metaphysical one. I'd say they are mere collections of bits and not a unitary being.


When it comes to certain organizations, whether companies or bands or teams, some have more degrees of whole-being than others. With these sorts of things, it would seem the more unique and beautiful the creations, the more reality the whole-beings appear to have. It is as though the creativity emerging from the whole-being, not any one part in particular, is what enables the whole-being-hood. For instance, Elton John has a band, but they are not (as far as I know) indispensable for the music created, whereas Elton John himself is quite indispensable. So, we don't normally credit Elton's band or even consider them (sorry to say) for their music. By contrast, the Beatles were a band of four young lads who, as a band, created history changing music, and when the four of them split up and went their separate ways, they could not, as individuals, come close to what they had done as a band.


Now, some people reading this will start to draw the wrong sorts of inferences, for instance that I'm advocating some sort of Marxist idea, that the collective has greater being than its members. Quite the opposite! If anything, my idea here is closer to communitarianism than communism! It is only because the parts are real individuals and do what they do as fully realized individuals that the whole-being is made possible. Remember that the parts are whole-beings themselves made of parts, and so on and so forth, perhaps "all the way down." Remember also that we are avoiding explaining wholes at the expense of their parts or vice versa. The question is just, "At what point does whole-being happen and why?" We can't have whole-being come into being where the being of the constituents is less than complete, for then, we should expect no more than less-than-something to come from other less-than-somethings. No, in order for the fully-realized whole-being to happen, it should be that there is full-realization of the being of the parts.


OK, at this point, it should be clear why syndicates are of interest to me and why the idea of syndicates is relevant to the name of the shop. A syndicate (or, a good one anyway) is made up of very specialized individuals. These individuals never lose their individuality, nor would the syndicate work if they did sacrifice their individuality. Rather, the syndicate does what it does precisely because, and not in despite of, the idiosyncratic nature of and self-direction of its members. But, it is a syndicate precisely because it performs sui generis acts (of creativity, for instance) that are not reducible to its members. Both the whole-being and the part-being are necessary to the creative output.


It is interesting that creation, especially artistic creation, would be the salient, if not defining, quality of being. Whether the Beatles creating a discography, or a beetle creating a ball of poop, or a spider creating an intricate web, the creations are how we know the creator whole-beings qua the beings they are. Somewhat ironically, if I'm on the right track, it would follow that we create ourselves in creating others.


Do you sometimes feel yourself to be a generic being? Try creating something unique, and see if that improves your feeling of existence, as well as your feelings of a worthwhile existence. Two birds, one stone!


OK, well, if you've made it this far down into the blog post, then you are an intrepid traveler, my friend. And, if you are as persistent as your are curious, then you will want to complain, at this point, that I've still not cleared up why "What is Syndicate?" is the wrong question. It was not a waste of your time to hear me explain how syndicates are an example of whole-beings emerging from part-beings, since that informs you why creativity is our company's raison d'être. But, and here's the kicker, the name of our company is not a noun. It is a verb. Moreover, it is a very short, one word imperative sentence. Moreover, it is instructions for the formation of a set. The set, once formed, will be, if we are doing our creative jobs correctly, a thing named by a noun. Thus, our company is pronounced ˈsindəˌkāt and not ˈsindiˌkət. It is telling you what you ought to do to be a better person (or, rather, to be better at being a person), and if you convey these same instructions to others, as you are also being instructed to do, we shall raise the general level of gestalt in the world. I think that's a good thing. More being, less non-being!


Our official DBA is {Syndicate}. The curly brackets are notation from set theory. The idea is that we are a set of individuals who make something that is greater than ourselves and have whole-being because of it. And, now, you know the REST of the story!


Because Syndicate is an imperative, the right question to ask is: "How do I?" and the answer to that question is: CREATE!



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