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Thread: False Dichotomy?: Holistic vs. Reductionist

  1. #1

    Default False Dichotomy?: Holistic vs. Reductionist

    People who cannot handle analysis, like to talk about how they "hate reductionism", and "prefer being holistic instead", as if somehow, understanding the parts somehow makes one incapable of understanding the whole.

    Admittedly, there is a point that one can become too focused on details that one "misses the forest for the trees". That point is taken, and noted. But most people are willing to step back and look at the big picture. Some, however, have some allergic reaction to analysis, as if, somehow, looking at the details means never again being able to see the whole.

    Why is this?

    some relevant things:

    An article in the context of biology:

    some relevant quotes from the article:
    Methodological reductionism and holism are not truly opposed to each other (15). Each approach has its limitations. Reductionism may prevent scientists from recognizing important relationships between components or organisms in their natural settings, appreciating the evolutionary origins of processes and organisms, grasping probabilistic relationships underlying complicated and seemingly chaotic events, or perceiving heterogeneity and emergent multilevel properties of complex systems. Holism, on the other hand, is inherently more challenging due to the complexity of living organisms in their environment. Fundamental principles may be difficult to discern within complex systems due to confounding factors like redundancy and pleiotropy. Signal may be swamped by noise. The technology is seductive, but more data do not necessarily translate into more understanding. It is not yet certain whether current approaches to holism, such as systems biology, are adequate to cope with the challenges posed by emergent properties of complex biological systems. When fecklessly performed, systems biology may merely describe phenomena without providing explanation or mechanistic insight (9) or create virtual models that lack biological relevance.
    “Reductionism is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it.”

    —Richard Dawkins

    Accept the past. Live for the present. Look forward to the future.
    Robot Fusion
    "As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance." John Wheeler
    "[A] scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." Richard Feynman
    "[P]etabytes of [] data is not the same thing as understanding emergent mechanisms and structures." Jim Crutchfield

  2. #2
    Happy Dancer Array uumlau's Avatar
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    I don't think it's a false dichotomy, any more than yes vs no is a false dichotomy: just as a human can say yes or say no, a human can take a holistic approach or a reductionist approach, just not at the same time in the same context.

    If you are in the state of mind appreciating the beauty of a flower in a reductionist context, thinking of all the connections and implications of what a flower is, then you are NOT appreciating the beauty of the flower holistically. The holistic appreciation is a completely different state of mind.

    If I might use typology as an analogy, I can appreciate the flower with Ni and Te, thinking of all the meanings and implications of the flower, or I can appreciate the flower with Fi and Se, relaxing in the moment with just the perception of the flower and my feelings about it, without analysis. The latter state is more difficult for me, though not impossible. I regard both states as "appreciating beauty", but they are very different experiences, different states of mind.

    Notice how breezily Feynman asserts that of course he can appreciate the beauty of the flower. I would assert that, no, he cannot, or rather, no, he is not inclined to. It's not a comfortable state of mind for him. He regards it is trivial, without much meaning, when there is all of this wonderful beautiful meaning in all of the connections he sees based on his scientific knowledge. His attention never really rests upon the flower, he doesn't notice anything about the flower, but instead his attention is focused on all the ideas in his head related to flowers.

    So I think his artist friend is right, Feynman is preoccupied with analyzing and is uncomfortable with just appreciating beauty as beauty. It's just that neither party in that video is capable of expressing the difference succinctly. Even in my case, I needed to analogize to typology just to keep my explanation brief, to make it clear that these really are opposite ways of thinking, and that lots of people tend to dismiss the kind of thinking that they don't use as not very meaningful.
    An argument is two people sharing their ignorance.

    A discussion is two people sharing their understanding, even when they disagree.

  3. #3


    Yes, false dichotomy, insofar as one person can indeed approach the world in both ways, just not at the same time.

  4. #4
    trapped in zoobilee zoo Array Osprey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nicodemus View Post
    Yes, false dichotomy, insofar as one person can indeed approach the world in both ways, just not at the same time.

    If only I could smash false dichotomies with a hammer.
    Free me from Zoobilee Zoo...

  5. #5
    Senior Member Array Zangetshumody's Avatar
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    I have no problem with reductionist approaches, please attempt to correct my use of that word if from the following it appears I am discussing something different;-

    I often feel that in science, reductionist approaches are not kept contextually accurate and in line with the often heavy handed methods used in reducing the record of facts/factors that I then feel are incapable of being read as the whole truth, and therefore should not be accorded such versatile extension in some misguided reading they are often accorded.

    Reductionist approaches can offer one a deeper understanding, but with that greater depth, the style of factors at play certainly becomes narrow and more contextually specific, and I feel those nuances are not understood well.

    Technically speaking, Newtonian physics is inaccurate by the fact that time is treated as a magnitude and not a medium (which Einstein shows us, it really part of the space we inhabit); this has incredible philosophical implications for science that wishes to apply a Newtonian model to a so-called understanding of reality which eventually leads to constructing a materialist account of what some believe to be truth.

    Now obviously in certain contexts, a material account is very good, because it allows you to track chains of consequence to understand what is required for something to work, and how things depend on each other; but this 'how things depend', when observed through consequentialism, is not the full scope of truth about the "nature of the what the dependence consists of"; which could, for all we know, be hidden by applying the consequential way of understanding imposed by the context produced by a Reductionist approach informed by Newtonian physics.
    Escape powerful genjitsu by averting your gaze from the eyes.

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