« Russell Ackoff and Mission Statements | Main | Russell Ackoff Doctoral Student Fellowships Announced »

June 10, 2008

Notes on Reductionism: Why we must embrace holism?

On the Melange blog Mayank, wrote the following post on reductionism a problem solving technique:

"Reductionism has always been the problem solving technique in sciences and associated disciplines. In reality solving a problem by reduction means transforming the problem into simpler problems and constructing or deducing solution of the original problem from the solution of the new problem. For example a student is given a problem to calculate the sum of all numbers between 1 and 101 which are not divisible by 3. Working a direct solution for this will be tedious so it is solved reductively. The required sum is the difference between sum of all numbers between 3 and 99 which are divisible by 3. Both sums can be calculated as arithmetic series. Thus the original problem is subdivided into sub problems of calculating arithmetic series which is actually nothing but reductionism (Armoni, Gal-Ezer & Tirosh 2005, p. 114). On the hand the term systems approach derives its base from holism or holistic thinking. The term holism was coined by South African philosopher Jaan Christiaan Smuts. He argued (Anderson, H 2001, p. 155) that “a unity of the parts could be so close and intense as to be more than the sum of its parts.” Smut explains the philosophy behind holism and systems thinking. Systems thinking usually deals with complex systems. Now a complex system unlike a conventional single feedback system comprises of numerous subsystems and the overall behavior of the system relies on the interaction of these systems. So the system output is not as simplistic and is not merely a sum total of the constituent entities."
Continue reading this content at the Melange blog

Posted by ACASA on June 10, 2008 at 10:37 AM | Permalink


The Melange article, “Why we must embrace holism?” incorporates, without making explicit mention of it, an assumption as to the nature of a ‘whole’, effectively ‘hiding’ an alternative ‘systems view’.

What the article does acknowledge is that influences nominally ‘outside’ of the system that ‘we are seeking to understand’ are typically influencing the behaviour of that system. Ackoff has used the example of the ‘University’ to illustrate this point. That is, the ‘university’ is a dynamical system that is included within a larger dynamical system, that of ‘community’ and in order to understand the behaviour of the ‘system included within a larger suprasystem’, our inquiry must be of an ‘outside-and-back-in-again’ orientation, rather than, exclusively, the standard analytical ‘inside [towards smaller internally nesting components as in the ‘constitutive’ newtonian approach]-and-back-out-again’ orientation. If the ‘university’ system is ailing, it need not be due to problems in its internals, but might be due to problems in its ‘coupling’ with the suprasystem in which it is included. In general, the requirements identified by ‘outside-and-back-in-again’ must be reconciled AT THE SAME TIME with the requirements identified by ‘inside-and-back-out-again’ inquiry.

The Melange article does comprehend the need for this ‘outside-and-back-in-again’ inquiry in some of its examples, but there is something important ‘missing’ from a systems inquiry perspective;

“That is if there is patient suffering from difficulty in breathing then instead of checking his/her respiratory organs we check for his ability to inhale and exhale. In this way all the causative agents will be taken into account. Reductionist might advance into inspecting internal organs while the problem might lie in some allergic substance in the environment or it can be a common case of influenza.”

This proved important to evolutionary biologists in studying the extinction of dinosaurs; i.e. Darwinian ‘natural selection’ is based on progressive development of lineages without the ‘outside-and-back-in-again’ inquiry. Of course, the geologic record is constituted by ‘structural remains’ and the ‘dynamics of the suprasystem space’ are not nearly as well recorded.

What is ‘missing’ from a systems inquiry perspective relates to our concept of ‘holism’. As the Melange article says, [relativity and] quantum theory “gave the sciences a new breath of life. Biology, behavioral science and especially systems sciences realized that the natural world and human society are inseparable, interacted whole. To understand the whole system thinking is required.”

The ‘whole’ that is implied in quantum theory, as Schroedinger, Bohm and others have observed, is that of a self-organising spacetime continuum rather than a ‘whole’ in the sense of a ‘complete object’ [the artefact of imposing absolute Euclidian space framing]. In ‘quantum reality’ the world dynamic in continually enfolding into itself; i.e. the spacetime continuum is a continually innovating/renewing fluid-dynamic. Systems scientists including Martine Dodds-Taljaard and Jamshid Garajedaghi have implicitly captured this in their requirements for systems inquiry, in that we must assume that “... the existing system was destroyed last night and what is put in its place is whatever is needed”.

For example, understanding the dynamical distribution of marine vessels in the vicinity of a passing hurricane is not going to be delivered by inquiry into the adaptive capacities of the indivdiual and collective of involved vessels; i.e. its ‘any port in a storm’ and unless they are captaining ‘Titanics’, their individual and collective behaviour will be inductively shaped by the dynamics of the suprasystem space they are included in. Their individual and/or collective ‘goals’ and adaptive drives in this case ‘bottom out’ in the quest for sustaining dynamical balance within the dynamics of the suprasystem they are included in.

As the author of the Melange article observes, and I agree, “it is not constructive to discuss what is better reductionism or systems approach. It is concerned with the nature of the problem, interests and priorities of the stakeholder”. The stakeholder who adopts ‘holistic inquiry’ in regard to social system dynamics has two choices, to assume, like the sailboat captain, that the suprasystem dynamic that he is included in is the source of his motive power and steerage (his quest is to stay in attunement and balance with the suprasystem dynamic he is included in (harmonious voyage takes precedence over destination attainment), or, to assume like the powerboat captain, that his direction and drive is coming from his own onboard drive and steerage powers (destination takes precedence over harmony-sustaining voyage).

Using Ackoff’s terms, there are two versions of holistic inquiry, (A) where we put ‘outside-and-back-in-again’ requirements in precedence over ‘inside-and-back-out-again’ requirements (this is the polarity that avoids having our continuing system construction become inflexible to evolutionary unfolding), and (B) where we put ‘inside-and-back-out-again’ requirements in precedence over ‘outside-and-back-in-again’ requirements. (B) [Note: Ackoff originally used Euclidian (linear) ‘up-and-back-down-again’ and ‘down-and-back-up-again’ inquiry descriptors where I am using the corresponding ‘spatial-relational’ (volumetric) versions].

In global social dynamics, when tsunamis, earthquakes, fires, floods and climate remind us that we ‘are not in control’, we let our individual and collective behaviour be actualized and shaped by the ‘outside-and-back-in-again’ (journey/space-attuning) requirements as in (A), however, when things ‘quiet down’, we re-assume our (destination orienting) (B) posture wherein we seek to command and control our individual and collective destiny by way of courage and perseverence, re-casting the suprasystem of our natural living space, from something ‘greater than us that we are included in and must attune to’ to terms of either ‘resource’ or ‘hindrance’ that stands between us and our destination (confronts us).

Posted by: ted lumley at Jun 26, 2008 8:00:17 PM

Post a comment