Holistic emergence and reductionism


First, the definitions:


“In philosophy, reductionism is a theory that asserts that the nature of complex things is reduced to the nature of sums of simpler or more fundamental things. This can be said of objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and meanings. so on — are controversial. For example, aspects of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are rejected by those who claim that complex systems are inherently irreducible or holistic.” (Read “Reductionism” in Wikipedia)


“Descriptive of a characteristic of a new or unexpected properties or qualities that emerge as a result of combination or rearrangement of existing elements. The most prominent examples are mind and consciousness, emerging from complex neurophysiological and bio-chemical components. The critical aspect of an emergent property is that one could not predict it from its constituent parts. Emergentism is position that stresses that objects and the phenomena (particularly psychological ones) have emergent properties. Reference is also made to emergent evolution as a way of characterizing the appearance of novel phenomena.” (Reber)

Two types of emergence:

“Emergence may be generally divided into two perspectives, that of “weak emergence” and “strong emergence”. Weak emergence describes new properties arising in systems as a result of the interactions at an elemental level. Emergence, in this case, is merely part of the language, or model that is needed to describe a system’s behavior.

But if, on the other hand, systems can have qualities not directly traceable to the system’s components, but rather to how those components interact, and one is willing to accept that a system supervenes on its components, then it is difficult to account for an emergent property’s cause. These new qualities are irreducible to the system’s constituent parts (Laughlin 2005). The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This view of emergence is called strong emergence.” (from “Emergence” in Wikipedia)

I tend to backslide into the all-too-comfortable reductionist perspective. I believe that most of my diagrams on this blog exhibit a reductionist perspective – even while I attempt to promote a holistic perspective through them.

This renders most of my diagrams as incomplete. Explaining complexity dynamics without explaining holistic emergence and reductionism may lead to an incomplete understanding.Visual explanations, diagrams and other didactic tools tend to be associated closely with reductionism. I would think this is the result from :

  • our current educational mode
  • the dominance of the reductionist philosophy in some branches of science
  • the abstract and dynamic nature of holistic emergence (e.g. we don’t have a symbol for emergence)
  • the immeasurable, incalculable nature of holistic emergence

Figure: A complex network with an emergence dynamic (The blue bubble surrounding the network is a symbol for emergent dynamics).

Requirements for systems thinking education

Holistic emergence needs to have a literal and graphical symbol that we can include in our graphs, charts and diagrams to signify its presence and its dynamics.

We should also note that the abstract nature of holistic emergence may lead some traditional systems to reject it (e.g. some business and some sciences). The rejection may be based on our inability to measure it (e.g. how do you measure “mind” or how do you measure “consciousness” or “psyche”?)

Reductionism may be a complimentary thought phase of holistic thinking. In other words reductionism may contribute to holistic thinking. It may not be a direct (strong) relationship but it can be complimentary if used together with awareness of their limitations.

This may be one of the reasons why we find ourselves using reductionist tools to explain non-reductionist concepts.

Reber, Arthur S. and Emily Reber. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. 3rd Ed.


Book: The Turning Point by Fritjof Capra. Chapter 4.


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