Holism in science

Holism in science, or holistic science, is an approach to research that emphasizes the study of complex systems. Systems are approached as coherent wholes whose component parts are best understood in context and in relation to one another and to the whole.

This practice is in contrast to a purely analytic tradition (sometimes called reductionism) which aims to gain understanding of systems by dividing them into smaller composing elements and gaining understanding of the system through understanding their elemental properties.[1] The holism-reductionism dichotomy is often evident in conflicting interpretations of experimental findings and in setting priorities for future research.

Overview

David Deutsch calls holism anti-reductionist and refers to the concept as thinking the only legitimate way to think about science is as a series of emergent, or higher level phenomena. He argues that neither approach is purely correct.[2]

Two aspects of Holism are:

  1. The way of doing science, sometimes called "whole to parts", which focuses on observation of the specimen within its ecosystem first before breaking down to study any part of the specimen.[3]
  2. The idea that the scientist is not a passive observer of an external universe but rather a participant in the system.[4]

Proponents claim that Holistic science is naturally suited to subjects such as ecology, biology, physics and the social sciences, where complex, non-linear interactions are the norm. These are systems where emergent properties arise at the level of the whole that cannot be predicted by focusing on the parts alone, which may make mainstream, reductionist science ill-equipped to provide understanding beyond a certain level. This principle of emergence in complex systems is often captured in the phrase ′the whole is greater than the sum of its parts′. Living organisms are an example: no knowledge of all the chemical and physical properties of matter can explain or predict the functioning of living organisms. The same happens in complex social human systems, where detailed understanding of individual behaviour cannot predict the behaviour of the group, which emerges at the level of the collective. The phenomenon of emergence may impose a theoretical limit on knowledge available through reductionist methodology, arguably making complex systems natural subjects for holistic approaches.[5]

Science journalist John Horgan has expressed this view in the book The End of Science. He wrote that a certain pervasive model within holistic science, self-organized criticality, for example, "is not really a theory at all. Like punctuated equilibrium, self-organized criticality is merely a description, one of many, of the random fluctuations, the noise, permeating nature." By the theorists' own admissions, he said, such a model "can generate neither specific predictions about nature nor meaningful insights. What good is it, then?"[6]

One of the reasons that holistic science attracts supporters is that it seems to offer a progressive, 'socio-ecological' view of the world, but Alan Marshall's book The Unity of Nature offers evidence to the contrary; suggesting holism in science is not 'ecological' or 'socially-responsive' at all, but regressive and repressive.[1]