A Theory of Fun for Game Design
The Endless Forest

The Big Fight: Reductionism versus Holism

0151_the_big_fight_guy_denningIn 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.

Watch_1Reductionism 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!)

EarthI 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.

Muellerbelief_systemEverything 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.


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Good stuff!

I also believe that we should be open to all kinds of ideologies and methodologies, approaches and artistic bends, because I sure as hell haven't in the past, and it sure as hell didn't work.

But if I'm open to all these things, that means I'm implicity open to the closed ideals some people may stick to! Holy crap!

I think it's fine to find some people's approaches repellant, as good things can come from reactivism, too! I don't know if reactivism is really a word!

If it is a word, then reactivism breeds minnovation - the desire to do just enough to improve on the status quo, and keep the hardcore quiet :/. It creates, serendipidously (again, is that really a word?), very similar games at very similar times, because game makers are reacting to the same stimulous and coming up with similar solutions.

Like, I'm constantly having my omg great ideas trumped by others. While it's nice to see that my ideas aren't completely insane (someone else agrees with them without knowing it), it merely marks me out as an unoriginal thinker - a problem solving robot, not a creator of interestingly new things.

Stepping out of that mindset of pure reaction to the state of the gamescape, letting other influences in from uncommon ground - that breeds the really interesting lateral jumps.

I guess, for me, the holy grail of game design has been understanding the relationship between base rules and the emergence they produce - to craft highly emergent possibility spaces in such an intentional way they they never emerge undesireably - embracing the lack of control we have over players so that we can better enable them without enabling them into stupidity-space.

It's reductionism to as the means to creating the ends of holism - understanding the system up and down. Like you, I don't see them as different. They're two ways of looking at the same beast.

Whether it is possible to bend possibility space with such expertise... ?

Why do I always post when I'm tired enough to be considered legally drunk?

I'm a reductholist, taken after the term from Godel, Escher, Bach, so I think God can be found in quantum gravity (or whatever the lowest level is) to the effect that quantum gravity guides probability to otherwise improbable things, such as the existence of intelligent life. We should all become reductholics.

A recent spat on Heroine Sheik regarding Chris Crawfords recent Escapist article put this very issue on the table: evolutionary psychology was decried as being too reductionist and misses out on what women really want, as opposed to what evo psyche says they want due to evolutionary programming. As far as game design goes, however, Crawford's reductionism is producing a useful and widely applicable drama engine, which could be used by more holistic thinking storybuilders to creat interesting gameplay experiences. Reductive though helps formalize, implement and balance a game, holistic think helps one to hone in one those rare confluences of rules that are genuinely "fun" and extrapolate those rules into an aesthetic and player-oriented experience.

I've said it once and I'll say it again, if you want to design videogames, you really ought to read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstader.


Thanks for the tip! I've added it to my reading list, and relatively high up too - it sounds fantastic! I might get to it before the end of the year, depending how things go.


"I think it's fine to find some people's approaches repellant, as good things can come from reactivism, too! I don't know if reactivism is really a word!"

I'm not really a fan of Hegel, but the process of thesis + antithesis = synthesis can be invaluable; in this regard we should be thankful (as you say) for people's willingness to take opposing viewpoints! Especially when they do so in a friendly manner. :) Still, I lack the energy to fight sometimes.

'Serendipidously' is a word in the sense that I understand what you meant, although 'serendipitously' is a more conventional rendering. :) 'D' and 't' are very close in phonetics, anyway.

That ideas often emerge (in games and in other fields) in parallel could be seen as a tangible indication of how much we are all influenced by common cultural forces - what is often termed the zeitgeist. It may not be that you are "an unoriginal thinker", simply that you're comfortable with your place in the central flow. I know that when I first ventured away from the centre, it had a deleterious effect on my sanity! I made it back, though. That, perhaps, is a story for another time. :) Anyway, you strike me as intelligent and broad minded - who knows when inspiration may strike!

Anyway, I'm glad you felt comfortable enough to comment here when you were "tired enough to be considered legally drunk." :)

Dude. I WISH I had the time to read all your posts :( The philosophy stuff you've written of past is fucking superb

Anyways... to the point!

In my experience, I would say all theories compliment each other.

In Kung Fu, I found that you need to use reductionism to break down and teach a concept to a student.

Once they've tried, failed, tried again and eventually grasped the technique for competent enough use, they then learn or are shown the holistic properties and hidden 'angles' of the concept through practice, sparring and analysis of their form. Holistic understanding often comes after frequent use or practice.

Whenever I communicated the holistic properties of say, a centre punch, they wouldn't get it, simply because concepts in Wing Chun tend to support each other and I'd be making reference to simple concepts, but ones they couldn't yet relate to.

On the other hand, the most important and holistic concept in Wing Chun is to hit the target. Not learning that makes all the reduced concepts useless.

I believe these both have a strong and useful place and to discount one as better or more useful than the other would be to regard it exclusive of a context.

Again, compliments on your very fucking awesome post.

Thanks Dan! I have a small request - although I personally have no problem with swearing, I know there are some people who are offended by such things. Can I ask you to tone it down in the comments, as a politeness to other visitors? I promise when you talk to me face to face you can swear until your head explodes! :)

LOL! No worries ;)

I don't see reductionism as an opposing methodology to holistic thinking, but rather as a complimenting and neccessary component in understanding. I think emergent systems are a prime example - in Conway's Life, it requires a holistic viewpoint to visualize the patterns of emergence that will occur. However, without looking at it reductively, I don't think you will ever learn the true nature of the "why" in how those patterns appear. You might be able to find some superficial patterns, but you will lack deeper understanding of the system. Likewise, looking at it reductively but not holistically, you will understand how the system works, but not the larger consequences it might entail.

I think Einstein had an appropriate quote - religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind. I think that applies here as well - true understanding of a complex system requires both a reductive analysis of the components, as well as a holistic overview of the emergent patterns.

God DAMN it.

If I had read this article before writing my Shadow of the Colossus review, I would have used "reductionism" vs "holism" instead of borrowing analytical/romantic from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.



Reductionism and Holism might be complimenting in their use, but one of those theories has to be false, because they still are opposed in teir tenants. As you stated:

"If there exists even one thing that cannot be understood by breaking it down into its component parts, then holism wins."

So there IS some Truth (with capital T) to seek in opposing the two theories. My belief is that there is no such thing as "relative truth". Changing your theorical approach once in a while can prove benefical, but in the end you should not admit that all theories are "true" because they all have some usefulness. You can only reckon that you don't know which one is false, which is _very_ different. I feel that it's always a bad thing to reject the idea of "objective truth" just because of the practical assets of different theories...

I don't want to use relativist physics to predict the trajctory of a tennis ball, but that doesn't mean I should consider that Newton's theory is true - because it isn't. And that doesn't mean that relativist physics is true neither.

That said, I am - as you probably guessed more appealed by reductionism.


P.S. Sorry for my bad english, it's not my native language.

Thanks for the comment, Francois! Whilst your logic is sound, remember that neither philosophical systems nor scientific theories ever achieve the status of being "Big T" True - the whole notion of Truth in this sense is a philosophical fallacy which rumbles on from Plato, as I believe I have noted in another post. Never trust logic blindly - as you must accept the premise to accept the conclusion.

To prove that something is absolutely True, we would have to test it in all circumstances - which is impossible. Instead, we often rely on induction to "prove truth". The trouble being that induction need not hold. If I have a drawer with a million black socks and one pair of red socks, I may pull out black socks thousands of times and conclude (via induction) that the drawer contains only black socks - but still, I may yet pull out a red sock. :)

Science is an infinite process of refining our models, but those models never manage to achieve the status of Truth. We must still believe in the underlying premise of the scientific method to accept the truth-values of the models. Indeed, one doesn't have to venture far into philosophy to appreciate that all truth values depend upon beliefs - hence things can be true (relative to a certain belief system) but never True (absolutely).

Rejecting "relative truth" is a dangerous game - many people who do so end up in a strange place where they claim to be objective but on examination are merely claiming that their nervous systems are better tuned to the universe than other people.

As I have noted before, I tend to side with zeteticism - which is to say, I believe there is an objective universe, but I accept that all we know about it is mediated by our senses, reasoning and memory, all of which are fallible. Which is to say, there probably are objective truths - but we can never know with any certainly what they are!

Also, I choose to reject any belief whose logical consequence is solipsism (the belief that one's self is the only thing that can be verified to exist), since solipsism is a philosophical oubliette from which there is no escape. Certain philosophical positions are appealing because they are defensible, but on the whole, I feel people should take a leap of faith and believe in something more than just themselves - be it reality, god or science. :)

"I believe there is an objective universe, but I accept that all we know about it is mediated by our senses, reasoning and memory, all of which are fallible. Which is to say, there probably are objective truths - but we can never know with any certainly what they are!"

There is ONE and only ONE objective reality, and it is easy to prove that it is the case: I think, therefore I am, so however fooled I might be by my senses (or drugs, or the Matrix, or anything else) one thing for sure is my existence.

Do that again for every thinking being ever, you've got n>=1 conscious beings whom existence cannot be denied. So there is an objective and SINGLE reality which is at least the reunion of all those existences - even if there is no link between them, because what defines reality (or truth for that matter) is the absence of contradiction. In the worst case scenario i have n==1 and you're not real :), but the point is, mankind has had a simple proof of the existence of an objective reality since Descartes, so it's always a bit surprising to hear such things as "there might as well be no objective reality" - because this is plain false.

This has nothing to do with induction, my point is not to prove which one of reductinnism or holism is True (since this can't be done), but only to prove that one of them HAS to be false - and thus that you certainly cannot think that maybe both of them are true just because this idea looks "cool" (I'm not saying that for you, but I think a lot of people tend to take that point of view without really thinking about it, only because it looks more "new" - no, I'm not an old traditionnalist lol i'm 22).

BUT don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you should stick to one approach no matter what, it certainly is an excellent thing not to be too rigid with your points of view. But this is only practical, this only has practical use, like designing a video game (and since I love video games, I'm not the one who will yell at someone using a holist approach for designing them :)). As well as Newton's physics are very useful, but wrong. There are some fields, very theoretical I must admit, where you simply _cannot_ accept contradicting theories. This is the whole point of the huge unifying theories such as supercords, when working there you cannot just say "oh well, no one can prove which one is true between quantum and relativity, so let's say they might as well both be true". At some point you have to admit that a theory can be false BUT useful. This doesn't mean you're stubborn or narrow-minded, although it is more of a trend to believe it nowadays...

Well sorry for this way too long post anyway:).

I see your point, Francois, and of course I agree that a theory can be 'false' but useful. Your Newtonian example is apposite, and of course extends to *all* scientific models. It is not that general relativity and quantum mechanics are "True" in any sense - we have just not yet peeled off the next layer of the onion, so to speak, and seen the models underneath.

However, I don't agree that your Descarte-based proof of the existence of a single objective universe has nothing to do with induction. When you say:

"Do that again for every thinking being ever, you've got n>=1 conscious beings whom existence cannot be denied."

Well, that looks like induction to me! The basic method for induction is: prove the base case, then extend to a general case. To my mind, that is precisely what you are doing above! :)

It also looks like you took a giant leap of faith into pre-supposing (i.e. believing in) the existence of every thinking being ever, whose existence to you is only mandated by the evidence of your senses - which need not be reliable.

For example, I choose to believe you are a real person, but I cannot eliminate the possibility that I am deranged and sequestered in a mental asylum somewhere, having complex and vivid hallucinations that an apparently intelligent and insightful individual named Francois is trying to communicate with me. The only thing that protects me from this (sollipsist) perspective is my decision to believe in other people - without which I could do nothing useful. Pragmatism therefore forces me to believe in you! But nonetheless, I must take a (small) leap of faith into believing that you exist - I cannot prove it.

This of course is what you allude to when you say "in the worst case I have n==1 and you are not real!" The key difference between us is that you choose to consider this a sufficient condition for the existence of a single objective reality, whereas I do not see any compelling reason why this should follow.

Consider, for instance, a delusional person who is in exactly the situation I describe above. They have hallucinations that constitute their reality. Would you really contend that for this person that their hallucinations constitute a single objective reality for them? (Which you could reasonably choose to do!). If you say it does, then we must question what you mean by 'objective'. If you say it does not, then you cannot claim to have a proof, as there are cases for which it would not apply.

Descartes, while undoubtedly an invaluable contributor to philosophy, is now on very dodgy ground in modern philosophical circles. For instance, he used his methods to prove the existence of a benevolent god which many people do not believe can be proven. The whole mind-body problem, which Descartes kind of kicked off, remains a major issue in philosophy however.

Bertrand Russell is one of many philosophers to have written extensively with the problems of cartesian dualism and Descartes' philosophy. If I were more than just an amateur philosopher, I would be able to give you some suggestions as to interesting books that discuss the subject, but sadly I cannot. :) Any "professional" philosophers have any suggestions? I'd be interested myself!

I am afraid I have to keep my point: my demonstration is no induction at all but pure deduction.

"Do that again for every thinking being ever, you've got n>=1 conscious beings whom existence cannot be denied."

IS deducttion, whereas:

"Since I exist, there must be other thinking beings."

is induction (and I never said such a thing, because this is stupid :)).

I'm not saying that there ARE other thinking beings because my senses tell me so, I am saying that whatever the number of thinking beings, this number is >=1, so blablabla. So this is deduction, plain and simple :).

Furthermore, the demo even works with n==1, so we have all cases covered.

In case I'm not clear enough I will reformulate my demo in a more "maths" way:

Demonstration of existence of an objective reality :)
n being the number of existing conscious beings
For n>0, we call B(n) the n-th conscious being
For n>0, B(n) exists, therefore there is an objective Reality that cannot be denied that we call R(n)

we call R the reunion of all R(n)

we have n>=1 (because I think, therefore I am)

So R is not empty (sorry dunno the english term for that, french is "ensemble vide"...)

So we have a reunion of realities that cannot be denied: this is an objective reality.

I'm sure enough this demo is totally false by maths standards, but you got the idea. And if you see any induction here warn me :p.

Anyway, there is no point in arguing over it: can you deny or question your own existence? No. So your existence is objective (and you cannot argue that it might be subjective because it is you who thinks it, because the mere act of thinking MAKES YOU REAL). Therefore there is an objective reality. Coma. The demo above is just a way to define it a bit better, that's all.

"The key difference between us is that you choose to consider this a sufficient condition for the existence of a single objective reality, whereas I do not see any compelling reason why this should follow.

Consider, for instance, a delusional person...

STOP. If you chose to consider a delusional person, then this person has to exist. So there must be an objective reality. It doesn't matter if he/she lives in a hallucination/matrix/illusion, the point is that if he/she thinks, something somewhere HAS to exist to produce this thought... so there IS an objective reality. There is no way around this, because this is the very meaning of reality: something instead of nothing... even just mere thought! You cannot play with such concepts, because their validity conditions are "built-in". Denying an objective reality doesn't make sense, because to "deny" something, you have to exist... It's like saying "I always lie", it just doesn't make any sense (I suppose you know why such a statement is impossible).

Sure, Descartes could not stay totally logical up to the end of his demo. But as you stated in a precedent post, solipsism is a dead-end, there is nothing you can get out of it. What this mean is that at some point, everybody has to make choices in an inductive way. What this doesn't mean is that you can forget Descartes experiment. It might not be of great practical use, but it nonetheless is TRUE, so you cannot just ignore it ;).

Now about philosophers... I admit I certainly aint one. But I've read countless philosphy books, and spoke with many philosophy teachers. At some point, all of them lacked formal logic - the kind of logic that allow you to mess around with these metaphysical concepts in a true rigorous way. So I'm not saying philosophy is useless, but no philosopher ever convinced me that his field was of any value in such regard. Even Descartes ended up trying to prove God existence eventually, as you mentionned. I dont believe that philosophy is of any help in that field, at least not the kind of philosophy I've read so far. But I'd be more than happy to see a "professional philopher" prove me wrong. Yet it took me more than two hours of talking to convince my last philosophy teacher of all of the above, and the same for some other concepts such as determinism and so on, so frankly I now believe that philosophy requires a certain form of litterary thinking which is quite innapropriate for dealing with such subjects (but again I might be wrong...).

I hope my posts don't annoy you, I have a tendency to make very long messages lol.


I don't find your comments annoying, Francois, but they are surprisingly formal! :) I've not had someone post a mathematical lemma in a philosophical discussion before - that alone is fascinating!

I see now why you are not appealing to induction. However, we have somewhat argued around each other.

I understand how you are attempting to demonstrate the existence of at least one objective reality. But how does it aid us to "prove" the existence of an objective reality if we have no reliable access to that reality? Consider our delusional person - she can use logic to demonstrate an "objective" (etic) reality "exists" - but she has no direct experience of it. Her personal (emic) reality is completely distinct from it! And we have no way of knowing if we are in the same boat.

Also, logic is subject to similar problems as induction. You must believe in its tenets to accept its conclusions. I'm afraid there's no way to escape a small leap of faith somewhere in the process! :) Our delusional person could use logic to prove all manner of propositions - I've used logic to prove 1=2, and other such nonsense, imagine what a delusional person could achieve with logic! :) That said, logic is a far sturdier tool than induction!

As an aside, your logic appears to rest on the assumption that for there to be thought there must be an objective reality for the thinker to exist within. But we can conceive of non-objective realities which contain thinkers, can we not? :) Suppose all that exists is thought; would you consider that universe of thought to be an objective reality? It's an open question with more than one answer... I'm not sure that I would, though; a reality, perhaps, but not necessarily objective in the way I use the term.

I personally believe in a single etic (objective) reality, but I accept that all I know about it is mediated by my emic (personal) reality. But one could reasonably believe in a multitude of etic realities, and/or a multitude of emic realities with no common etic reality - indeed, several interpretations of quantum mechanics allow for this quite readily. Your proof suggests R is not an empty set - but it does not prove that R contains only one member (assuming I have understood your maths!) :)

Anyway, I believe I now understand where you are coming from, and hopefully you can see where I am coming from too. Many thanks for the discourse! If you choose to reply at length, I must give my apologies, as I have spent *far* too much time discussing ontology with you, and although a thoroughly enjoyable debate, I have a mountain of work which logically deserves my attention. Quel dommage, mais c'est la vie! :)

Merci beaucoup, et prends garde!

Reductionism and holism are tools for understanding, no more. Suggesting that one is "right" and one is "wrong" makes no more sense than saying that a hammer is "right" and a wrench is "wrong." Right and wrong for what purpose?

Reductionism enables us to see the static connections between parts of a larger thing, and sometimes to understand how they work together dynamically also.

Holism enables us to see the patterns of behavior among collections of objects whose "larger thing" is unknown (and may not exist).

Reductionism took molecules and gave us atoms; took compounds and gave us elements. Holism took disparate elements whose relationships were unknown and gave us the periodic table. Chemistry would not have been possible without both.

By characterizing the distinction between them in terms of "winning" and "losing," as if there was some reason to consider one superior to the other, you cloud the issue. Wrenches don't beat hammers. Both are required in the toolbox.

We seem to be in complete agreement! I find it hard work to popularize philosophy; pretending that this matter could be seen as a fight seemed to be an amusing and accessible way to approach the subject. Since it went down so well, I have since endeavoured to reduce the amount of artifice in my posts on philosophy, but at this point in the past I thought I needed the extra support for people to be interested in reading on the subject.


Great stuff here on this blog. I'm thoroughly enjoying reading it today.

Anyone interested in a systematic approach to holism needs to read Rupert Sheldrake's book The Presence of the Past ( http://www.amazon.com/Presence-Past-Morphic-Resonance-Habits/dp/089281537X/sr=8-2/qid=1158339497/ref=pd_bbs_2/104-1724254-3375900?ie=UTF8&s=books ).

A brief summary of his hypothesis is on his website ( http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/morphic/morphic_intro.html ).

P.S. Any chance of enabling HTML hyperlinks in your blog comments so I can hyperlink to my own descriptive text instead of forcing the reader to parse these enormous unsightly URLs in the middle of a comment?

No amount of philosophical debate could settle "Reductionism versus Holism" unless one could find a discipline which is both reductionistic and holistic to conduct scientific experiments. In 1994, I developed Sequence Algebra (or SA) which led to the development of Quantum Number Theory (or QNT). Classical number theory is reductionistic since one manipulates individual standalone integers. SA and QNT are holistic since the fundamental building block is the infinite natural number sequence itself. With this latest development, I have at my disposal a reductionistic laboratory and a holistic laboratory which enables me to determine similarities and differences betwen the reductionistic and holistic paradigms. Instead of philosophising ( I am not using this term derogatively) now I can find out more about reductionism and holism "scientifically". My conclusion is that a scientific discipline could make quantum progress if it embraces both reductionism and holism. This is possible in classical number theory backed by QNT. There is this reductionism-holism gap in the above discipline which I cannot eliminate by a rigorous mathematical proof. But intuitively, I believe that this gap can never be bridged. This is because QNT could predict new properties which cannot be predicted by calssical number theory and vice versa. These mean that I have to accept that reductionism and holism could at best coexist within a discipline with the referee declaring the fight a DRAW! In fact the term FIGHT seems irrelevant. How does one referee a fighte between a Ta-Chi master and a boxer? Both fighters will shake hands and return home with the knowledge that it is a fight that neither party could win. For more information please visit my website URL:
The question is that could this coexistence be extended to other hard sciences such as chemistry and physics? For soft sciences, I envisage no hope unless the proliferation of new terms come under strict scrutiny. Such terms such as emergence and punctuated equilibrium could mean different things in different disciplines which must be clearly defined and mathematicised. Without a clear code of conduct, the fight between Reductionism and Holism will be the longest fight on Planet Earth.
Could we ignore those whom we have long relegated to the Lunatic Fringe. Well, do you believe in ghosts. In cosmology, they almost prove that ghosts exist in the form of dark matter and dark energy. But I am sure cosmologists and astronomers are not members of the Lunatic Fringe.

Thank you for the comment, Huen! This was one of my early philosophy posts, and as I mention in a comment above, I characterised this as a 'fight' as a device to engage the audience.

"How does one referee a fighte between a Ta-Chi master and a boxer? Both fighters will shake hands and return home with the knowledge that it is a fight that neither party could win."

This is a wonderful metaphor! :) I agree with you that these terms represent essentially incompatible but complimentary approaches. I am uncertain that it necessary to mathematicise all terminology, although obviously doing so would disclose a certain clarity, but it is certainly interesting to uncover mathematical foundations where possible.

Unlike you, however, I think that many cosmologists are indeed members of a lunatic fringe - it is simply that their models are so abstractly removed from everyday existence that no-one is a position to call them on it. Although this did not contribute to my decision to leave astrophysics, it certainly has made me smile in retrospect. :)

Many thanks for your comment, and best wishes!

Here is my poem on the:

The Reduc/Holi Gap

Don't waste too much time with GUT,
Nonclosure could drive us NUT.
Better to accept the Reduc/Holi Gap,
So sciences could run the next lap.
Linearity is not native to the Cosmos,
Unknown initial conditions get us lost.
Reductionism fathers incomplete acts.
Holism is not mother of medical quacks.

From my website:
For a mathematical proof of the existence of
the holism/reductionism gap, please read
Q131 from my website:

Huen: thank you for sharing this! I'll enjoy digging into your website when I get a spare moment.

May I ask, do you think that reductionism as a stance is more common in English-speaking countries? I wonder whether the philosophical traditions in China and its neighbours lead to more openness to a holistic perspective...

Best wishes!

Pardon me for the necro, and if my opinion seems naive.

It seems odd to me that to you emergence represents the triumph of holism, when it seemed obvious to me it showed once and for all that reductionism was the winning approach.

Reductionism states that anything can be understood by understanding the action of its parts, holism that things can only be understood as a whole system, yes? In emergence, we see that certain systems require a *complete* understanding at the reductionist level before their counter-intuitive higher level observable behaviors can be explained through simulation. You can "build up" from an understanding of the parts to an understanding of the whole, but you can't go the other way.

So although emergent systems might represent a synthesis of reductionism/holism, they certainly do not represent a victory of holism, since it's reductionist tools and analysis that produces the understanding of the whole.

Dave: thanks for the comment; I never mind having old material brought back - and this is old! :)

Philosophical discussions can be a pain because the terminology shifts!

What you're describing reflects a far more modern understanding of the term 'reductionist' - this new meaning has come about because of the abject failure of reductionism in its original meaning, as exemplified by the necessity of accepting emergence.

But the thing to remember, and the point of this old chestnut post, is that reductionism originally had a thesis that there were no situations in which something could be more than the sum of its parts. The acceptance of emergent behaviour contravened this claim in a manner that could not be denied - greedy reductionism was dead, score one for holism. ;)

Of course, reductionists simply changed the meaning of reductionism to allow for this, which is all well and good - but it's nice to remember every once in a while that everyone at the time was saying holism was absolutely and demonstrably wrong, whereas - in this instance - the conventional wisdom was utterly in error, and the crazy people were right! I love it when the crazy people "win". :D

But as Ernest has said in an earlier comment, and I heartily agree, reductionism and holism are simply perspectives - tools we can apply. There cannot be a fight between perspectives (although there can be a fight between the people who hold those perspectives!) so the notion of "the big fight" here was really spin, and not substance. But that, after all, was my goal!

This was one of my first attempts to make philosophy more interesting for a slightly wider audience; it's nice to see it occasionally being of interest again. ;)

Best wishes!

as with most discussions of philosophical ideas nothing is ever accomplished. just think of the lives wasted in the belief that their ideas really would matter down the road, or even improve human existence to any extent. so why in the world do i enjoy reading them? well not all of them.

oh darn i hit the wrong key....
by the way,, the only reason we do not yet know the reasons why LIFE HAPPENS here on earth, and no place else, as far as we know for sure, is because we do not see LIFE as connected to its energetic source, OUR STAR. until we acknowledge this fact of nature, and begin to treat OUR STAR as the only reason for LIFE on earth, we will never have complete understanding.
for those with more religious explanations of LIFE, try seeing OUR STAR as Gods servant for preparing our place in space for LIFE, for presumeably God made the sun and all else.
for those who think cosmology or paleantology, or evolution, or fossils, or astrobiology will eventually explain LIFE completely get a grip. earth is a dot in space; and we exist INSIDE the sun's house, energetically and gravitationally.
anyway, thats what i think. given our laCK OF knowledge about how life happens, the more HOLISTIC view seems appropriate, dont you think?

macrofactsoflife: Wow, this is an old, old post... makes me wonder how you stumbled upon it!

I certainly support your claim for the importance of the sun in the existence of life on Earth (and note that it is no coincidence that early religion venerate the Sun as a deity), but I think you overstate your case when you say:

"and begin to treat OUR STAR as the only reason for LIFE on earth"

This must be a mistake, and this for a number of reasons. But the critical point is that there ocean vent lifeforms that have never seen a ray of sunlight - life exists without the sun in certain places. Now it is certainly the case that without the sun, we would not see the diversity of life that we have - but in this regard, the presence of liquid water (relating to the position of the Earth with respect to the sun), the role of Jupiter as an "asteroid barrier", and - let's not forget - the way chemistry functions in this universe are all important facets of the story.

The holistic and the reductionistic views both have their role and purpose; I still feel that the ability to shift between both perspectives is stronger than the ability to see through just one of them.

Thanks for your comment!

Reductionsim is incomplete, because it cannot explain emergent properties of systems of interacting components. However, analysis, integration, and synthesis combined with holistic insight can lead to a theory that explains more than the observations of which the theorem is comprised, as was the case with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

Holism is incomplete because it cannot resolve either the parts or their interactions of which the emergent properties are comprised. However, while less common, deductive insight into the components and their interactions is not forbidden from the holistic perspective.

What is needed now is a logical calculus that functions with equal accuracy, completeness, and efficiency from the specific to the general and the general to the specific. Rather than an axiom-based logical calculus, where the theorems are built up systematically from the simple to the complex in a self-consistent way, what is needed instead is a criterion-based logical calculus that requires simultaneity of self-consistent inference from the simple to the complex and vice versa, that is, the theorems are derived simutaneously from inductive and deductive reasoning. Theorems that do not meet the criterion of simultaneity lack logical utility in this logical calculus system. If the criteria for accepting/rejecting such theorems are emergent properties of the system of logic itself, then criteria are the product of convoluted logic, which is simultaneously a contradiction in terms and a critical insight. The worm chases but never swallows its tail, and the properties of reality emerge from the dynamic nature of the chase.

Perhaps one can also benefit from the insights that emerged from the Copenhagen school of quantum mechanics, where complementarity was imposed as a constraint on logical self-consistency as one transitioned smoothly from the quantum to the classical scales of particle behavior. Or, perhaps, one can benefit from the Feynman path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics, where a particle explores all possible paths between points A & B, and the most probable path is the path of least action, whether in the quantum or classical domain. Perhaps there is an analogous logical path of least action that simultaneously explains all possible combinations of the components and their interactions. If one combines Feynamn's path integral formulation of quantum mechanics with Shannon's information theory and the opmization of code and channel to minimize communication uncertainty under the constraint of complementarity, perhaps one has the necessary and sufficient criteria and constraints for culling from all possible theorems the most utile for the logical calculus of simultaneity.

Whether this is the path of least confusion to the successful fusion of reductionsim and holism or a convoluted, logical dead-end, keep up this most important effort to force the issue of reconciling logical opposites in a self-consistent way. Confuscius and Marx would be pleased.

Lfinkl: thank you for your astonishingly thorough comment on this rather old piece!

I confess, my views have shifted since writing this... Since I no longer hold any faith in the ultimate unifiability of scientific theories - preferring instead to see them as individual instruments whose compatibility depends upon confluence of circumstances and may not be extensible to the whole of scientific knowledge - it seems to me now that while both these perspectives (reductionism and holism) are useful, neither can claim any precedence.

Regarding Feynman's quantum interpretation, I have always been fond of this approach but I increasingly sway towards Asher Peres' view that quantum interpretations are not strictly necessary from a scientific perspective. On the other side of this, however, scientific metaphysics are often useful as a step towards new theory, so never say never. :)

As for the reconciliation of logical opposites I never thought of this as something Marx would want, but I guess as a student of Hegel it's a logical inference. Reconciliation of ideas has been something of my stock in trade. We too often see competing perspectives as incompatible points of conflict rather than alternative angles on a single issue. I feel there is always plenty of work to be done in this area.

Thanks for commenting!

It would be nice to mention where the "battle" is right now regarding the theme of the post. Furthermore note that relativism is rather different than holism (although some supporters of the latter practice the former). And even more, one should not confuse "relativism" with "relativity" (although propagated by the media and as almost an urban myth) that "everything is relative" this is NOT relativity but relativism. In fact relativity is about invariants (one could say "truth" but i will not make it more political at this point). An example:

One could very well say that we can describe the relative motion of the solar system either as having earth be immovable or as having the sun be immovable. Relativity says that these are equivalent ways to do the same thing. Yet there was no dispute over where the light comes from. That is what relativity is about. On the other hand relativism could support that there is not such objective condition and we could say light comes from elsewhere or even there is no light at all. That is what relativism is about.

Hi Nikos,
Let me start by saying how shocked I am that this 11-year old piece has picked up any traffic at all! It's a wonder that you even found this post, let alone wanted to respond to it - but your comment is no less welcome for being surprising.

Although I agree that relativism and relativity are very different, at the same time there is a historical reason why there is a connection. Your characterisation of relativity as being concerned with invariants is interesting, and supportable (although the constant speed of light in a vacuum is a very different kind of 'invariant' to curvature invariants in general relativity). But it's important to recognise that Einstein's work unseated the traditional sense that all measurement was absolute. Instead, it forced us to recognise that the frame of reference of an observer had a decisive effect on what would be perceived, both in terms of time and space. In this sense, relativity does have a relationship (albeit only at a broad, thematic level) with relativism.

Of particular relevance to where my philosophy is today (bearing in mind that this piece was one of the first I ever wrote) is the way quantum mechanics and relativity inspired Alfred North Whitehead to develop new concepts for understanding the universe philosophically. But this would be too great a tangent to develop here. On this, my newest book Wikipedia Knows Nothing is not a bad point-of-reference (click the image in the sidebar for this; the PDF is free, and it's a quick read).

As for where this battle is today: this fight is over, but the underlying war proceeds apace. In philosophy, there are no supporters of holism, per se, and instead more sophisticated (and, alas, abtruse) ontologies have supplanted these totalising approaches. Positivism remains philosophically wed to reductionism, however (at least in broad strokes), and there are still conflicts about what can be reduced to what, and to what degree. For a much more recent post on this topic, see "Is Free Will Too Cheap?"

Many thanks for taking an interest in this!


Hello Chris, it is an interesting post and i'm interested that's all.

i saw the link of your book and seems interesting, i have also an interest and commented about wikipedia and related approaches to knowledge including their shortcomings.

i did not mention special nor general relativity, in fact there is relativity before Einstein, so-called "galilean relativity" (of newtonian mechanics).

i'm quite aware that official, mainstream philosophy education sponsors certain things and not others (despite the contents of this post and several comments about having access to other approaches ..). And this is a very good reason to explain things, converse, break out of the box and so on..

i will comment about free will on that post.


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