About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Skeptical Inquirer column: reductionism vs. holism

Because of requests I have received on this blog, I will begin posting brief summaries of printed articles (usually in Skeptical Inquirer and Philosophy Now) that I author, shortly after they are published. When possible, I will also include a link to the articles for download. I would be interested, of course, in any discussion of such material that people care to engage in.

So, the first one in the series is a brief essay on reductionism vs. holism, which appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. The article discusses the contribution to the debate by philosopher Robert Brandon, who – I think – actually has something original to say about this topic, not an easy feat considering that reductionism has been at the center of philosophy of science debates for several decades. You'll need to read the SI piece to get a feeling for what the arguments are, but essentially Brandon proposes a “third way,” which he terms “mechanism” to combine the practical advantages of reductionism (it has been very successful in science) with the metaphysical pluses of holism (it is by far a more sensible view of the complexity of the real world).


  1. Based on your summary of Brandon's work, I wouldn't say he's 'solved' the reductionism/holism debate as much as pointed out (correctly, I think) that the debate itself is actually good for science! There would only be a problem to solve if scientists stopped trying to look at problems from multiple angles and multiple scales. The debate is as unsolved as ever, and may it rage on.

  2. I don't know what the big fuss is about. Both reductionism and holism can offer us important knowledge. If anything, reductionism appear to be somewhat the same to holism as newtonian physics is to relativity. Ueseful within its limits, when describing a narrower patch of the "whole picture".

  3. Good Day, I've just recently stumbled upon your blog and am enjoying it quite thoroughly. I just checked your book "Denying Evolution" from my University library and find it both enlightening and downright funny at times. Unfortunately, I attend a rather ignorant university (Creighton) bent on the glorification of deities rather than reason. Your book is certainly a ray of light in that regard. I keep a blog of my own at www.roryhand.com and I'll be sure to post a review of your book as soon as I finish, which won't be long given that I can't put it down. Best, Rory Hand

  4. It's amazing how often I come across something in one context that meshes so well with something I just read in another.

    I am reading the short book On Dennett by John Symons in the Wadsworth Philosophers Series, and just finished chapter 3, The Status of Folk Psychology. It deals with eliminativism vs. realism in dealing with the mind- do such things as beliefs and desires have a real existence? I see this as parallel to the reductionism vs. holism debate. The solution, in practical terms is similar- although a belief may not be a real thing in the sense that a rock is, for practical purposes we can deal with it as if it were.

    I am very fond of Dennett's writings, but I well remember the surprize I felt when I found out, for instance, that Gould's ideas are somewhat controversial after reading his column in Natural History for so many years. One seldom gets the opposing view when reading only a few authors.

    I have wondered if there is a way I can become more broadly educated in philosophy without going back to school. Do you know of a more or less comprehensive reading list that might bring me up to speed at least in being familiar with modern schools of thought in philosophy?

  5. There are several good introductory books on philosophy and modern schools of thought. Pick up an issue of Philosophy Now in a bookstore (or go to www.philosophynow.org/) to get started, or check out the Routledge catalog on philosophy at www.routledge.com/philosophy.

  6. Well, I can tell you that the vast majority of scientists does not give a flying fig for this debate, really. Whether that's good or not, that's another story.

    We talk a lot about this in the lab (well, we're at the "Center for the Study of Biological Complexity" after all). But a colleague of mine who's well versed in the "holism" side, for example, has become a bit disillusioned with all this. As Massimo states in the article, there's (almost) nothing useful that the holist approach can show. Sure, it sounds great and it is even demonstrated to be "proven" by the physicists/chemists like Ilya Prigogine. But in our everyday life at the bench (or the computer), what good is it? That's a question we're trying to address, since we're trying to develop a systems biology oriented curriculum there, and it's quite strange to imagine how to do such thing to, say, molecular biology, or cellular biology, let alone evolutionary subdisciplines like phylogenetic inference...

    Again, most scientists just keep on working and couldn't care less, if they ever heard of this debate to begin with.


  7. MP, as a research scientist and engineer myself, I can tell you that science (at least insofar as it is interpreted by engineers) assumes a holist world but models that world with reductionist techniques. We use different nomenclature, of course: "holism" == "nonlinear" and "reductionist" == "linear". The fundamental premise underlying linear models is that the principle of superposition holds, i.e. that one can deconstruct a problem into smaller, easily-analyzable parts, and then combine the answers into a coherent and meaningful whole. This principle does not hold in general, but often is quite accurate in tiny subsets of problems, in much the same way that a curve (e.g. a circle) can be approximated at a point on its circumference by a line tangent to it at that point. So from that standpoint, one might say that holism "is" reality, but reductionism proves to be useful in getting our minds around it.

  8. That is one of my favourite essays by Brandon. His two books are some of my favourite as well and I go back to them for wisdom over and over again.

  9. "Reductionism is a methodological standpoint while holism is an ontological one." Thinking of it this way it makes sense that some would consider the debate quite irrelevant to actual science, and others might simply defend the usefulness of simplification in the light of complexity. Brandon's middle ground according to the column in the Skeptical Inquirer also aims at practicality for a debate deemed to originate from a philosophically based divide. I see another side to "holism" or complexity, not grounded in ontology but methodology, which changes the view on this debate altogether. There is real hands on research that tries to take on "complexity" in order to gather information not captured by reductionist methodology (which useful of course but the point is it is not all encompassing) (I can get references for those interested). There is such a thing as emergent biological properties (i.e. system properties) that have not been studied within the prevailing reductionist paradigm. Acknowledging complexity does not have to imply the ontological stance of "the world is too complex don't try to simplify it", but the practical/methodological/scientific one of "the world is too complex - how may we begin to actually study this aspect (beginning by defining complexity in a manner that brings it out of its 'buzzword' existence)". Computational capabilities have evolved - that's a practical reality. We can afford to ask ourselves more difficult questions. Even though there is naturally a lot of excitement surrounding the potential, the newness this fact brings, it does not necessarily mean it is ALL just a lot of hype.

  10. The link to your article seems to be broken...is there some other place where I can access your essay?


  11. Allen,

    just drop me an email and I'll send you a pdf version.

  12. I find it odd that holism is seen as an ontological approach that takes complexity into account more so than reductionism; in fact, I find the opposite to be true. The argument of reductionism as simplification rests on the premise that simplification is defined as the explanation of larger things with their component parts. This is, quite frankly, ridiculous, because thinking of entities as irreducible wholes is excessive rationalization; the complexity of wholes are ignored when one thinks of them as essential entities. It's the difference between rational and irrational logic and math. Thinking of entities as given wholes with no examination to the very minute measurements of their parts lends to rationality, which IS simplification. Holism is also obviously simplification because, ironically, of its own criticism of reductionism. Holist thinkers criticize reductionistic approaches through their analysis of larger entities being ultimately reducible to irreducible things, which can be promptly worked into logic or math. Given this critique, it becomes obvious that holism becomes its own critic; to assume absolute unity is to believe in identical, unchanging, things, which lends to simplification. From there, one sees that simplification arises from epistemological assumption, a "stopping point" for the reducibility of entities. An extreme reductionist view would be indefinite reducibility, meaning that no entities are defined because they are arrangements and particular forms of smaller components that are not eternally bonded to other parts. It is a chaotic analysis of reality. Holism, on the other hand when taken to the extreme, would provide the most unitary and simplistic analysis: pure being, irreducible and unchanging. Simplification is thus not the destruction of the whole, but the opposite--the assumption of the whole.


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