In the red corner, weighing in at four hundred years of scientific investigation, the reigning champ - Reductionism! (Audience applause and jeering). In the blue corner, just eighty five years old but full of youth and vigour, the challenger - Holism! (Audience jeering and applause). Ready? Fight!
It's hardly surprising that the history of philosophy is rife with competing schools of thoughts, nor that these rivalries provoke vehement discussions. This post examines one such battle - between the philosophy of reductionism and that of holism. This is a relatively recent conflict that perhaps begun (or at least became formalised) in 1920.
In brief, reductionism holds that the nature of complex entitities can always be understood by breaking them down into simpler or more fundamental components. Holism takes the contrary view that the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. It is necessary to point out that there are many different versions of both of these philosophies, and I don't want to get into the details of the assorted varieties; my purpose here is to provide a broadstrokes discussion of these two competing philosophies. I apologies in advance to those in the field of philosophy, who should probably bite hard on a wooden spoon while reading this.
A philosopher friend of mine once said that the battle between reductionism and holism was, at its core, very straightforward: either all things can be understood by examining their component parts (thus, psychology could be explained by biology; biology by chemistry; chemistry by physics) - in which case reductionism wins. If there exists even one thing that cannot be understood by breaking it down into its component parts, then holism wins. In practice, of course, terms get redefined, and the scope of the argument moves on, but still, in terms of the crudest summation of the terms, her adjudication gives us a victory condition for this skirmish, and it is this that I shall be employing here.
Before looking at the outcome of this bout (because I believe this original fight is now concluded), we should look at the two contenders.
Reductionism has been the primary means that science has advanced for the last four hundred years or so, although of course this is not an argument that reductionism is "correct", merely that is has been exceedingly useful. There can be no doubt that reductionism has been of great value, and that modern science owes it a debt of gratitude. Still, this isn't a debate about utility, but a bare knuckle fight between competing viewpoints.
Supporters of reductionism are almost universally athiests, perhaps because a belief in God tends to assume the existence of elements which cannot be decomposed into constituent parts (although it must be said, there is no essential reason that one cannot believe in God and still adhere to a reductionistic philosophy - although one might have to place God at the bottom of the chain of constituent parts rather than at the top!)
Holism on the other hand has picked up a rather poor reputation in the eyes of many people. Largely this is a result of New Age mystics, eccentrics and crackpots adopting the term 'holistic' and applying it to, well, just about anything they like. But just as reductionism's valuable contribution to science is largely immaterial in the resolution of this particular fight, holism's adoption by the "lunatic fringe" is equally irrelevant. All that matters is whether or not everything can be understood by decomposing it into smaller parts.
(A brief aside. Almost all approaches which characterise themselves as 'holistic healing' have been demonised by parts of the medical establishment, although in fact there have been very few studies into their efficacy. I suspect that if you investigated them carefully you would discover that they perform about as well or slightly better than a placebo. Which is to say, they are effective at treating all ailments except schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. I find it curious that the medical community attacks this class of treatments, which probably perform at the same degree or slightly better than placebos, but support pharmaceutical companies who make billions selling drugs which often perform only slightly better than placebos, but which come with half a page of deleterious side effects. It's another great example of how our prior beliefs are the chief determinant of what we call reality).
There are some scientists who support holistic thinking. In particular, there are many chemists you don't believe that their field will ever be fully expressible in physics. Holistic scientists are harder to find, though - in part because the word "holistic" has become somewhat devalued by its association with the lunatic fringe. But again, it doesn't really matter how many scientists support each side, and indeed no amount of scientists believing the same thing will make it True any more than a universal belief in Geocentrism would make it big-T True that the sun revolves around the Earth (although it could certainly make it culturally true!)
I began to suspect that holism might be the horse to back in this race after reading Lovelock. Gaia Theory seemed to point rather clearly towards holism - although Lovelock himself has no such philosophical bias. But arch reductionist Richard Dawkins had it in for Gaia Theory from the start - mostly for rather lacklustre reasons not quite worthy of a scientist of his stature, and largely equating to the theory not fitting his own belief system. Watching the progress of Gaia Theory has been like watching Kuhn's paradigm shift occur in real time. (It's worth noting that the Gaia Theory page of the Wikipedia does not have a tag reading 'The Neutrality of this article is Disputed' - the signpost of the borders of currently accepted knowledge... just ten years ago, I'll bet that it would!)
But it's not Gaia Theory that is the special move combo that causes crazy holism to KO rational reductionism. It's emergence. This term denotes the increasingly popular trend for identifying phenomena where complex patterns result from relatively simple rules: something is considered emergent when it is unpredictable from a lower level description, such as human consciousness (presumably) resulting from neural activity, the behaviour of an ant colony or the formation of neighbourhoods in a city.
The moment you accept emergent behaviour, you've moved beyond the bounds of simple reductionism. Yes, you can come up with new versions of reductionism that take this into account, but in the basic battle between the two philosophies, emergence throws away the notion that one can express all things solely in terms of constituent parts.
So it's the challenger, holism, that wins the philosophical fight (at least, in the manner it is presented here - I would remind you that the actual philosophical battle has moved on, and you would need to be very close to the field to know exactly where the conflict is now centred... the term 'greedy reductionism' has been coined to describe the philosophy which now lies battered and bruised in the ring). But that doesn't make holism 'true' and reductionism 'false'. In fact, it would help us enormously if we would stop thinking in terms of truth and falsehood and move to a more detailed ontological model for our understanding of the world.
My fervant belief is that reductionism is a useful way of examining the world. Employing reductionism can often produce valuable data and insights into the manner in which things work. But, and it's a not inconsiderable caveat, so can holism. Considering systems as whole is a different perspective which can also produce valuable data and insights into their nature. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that these two philosophies are just different lenses through which we can view the world.
Everything that we experience is mediated by our belief system - we have only our senses to provide data but we do not percieve sense data directly, but via our emic (personal) reality which is built from myriad beliefs we have acquired from our parents, our peers, our culture and our own investigations. Once we come to terms with this, we have a new found freedom to adopt and put aside philosophies such as reductionism and holism as and when the situation dictates.
There will always be people who are more drawn to reductionism than to holism, and vice versa. But if we truly want to be intelligent, broad minded individuals, we need to take a step away from the trivial conflicts between competing philosophies (in this and in other contexts) and recognise that we are free to choose the beliefs which define how we look at the world - and that what we can learn, and how we apply that knowledge, will change according to which beliefs we choose to adopt. This is a magnificent opportunity! We should never waste it by becoming so entrenched in a single viewpoint that we cannot, even for a moment, look at the world from another point of view.
The opening image, 'The Big Fight', is by Guy Denning. No copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.