From a Reductionist Approach to a Holistic One

Reductionist Approach

In classical logic, Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction states that you cannot be “A” and “Not A” at the same time. Consequently, we can divide anything between “A” and “Not A”; and furthermore, “A” into “B” and “Not B”; and so on and so forth.

Aristotle's Principle of Non Contradiction

The deeper we go down each branch, the further we get from other divisions. For hundreds of years, people in physics had almost no idea about the things that were happening in the chemistry world; and those in mathematics knew very little about what biologists are doing.

This approach has been deeply entrenched in our way of thinking. That is the way we see the world; and that is the way we organize things. Our methods of management and understanding are completely reductionist in essence.

In the same reductionist approach, we organize a company to its different departments such as Finance, Human Resources, Casting, Machining, Sales, Procurement; and this gives us a notion of understanding when dealing with complex things. However, Stafford Beer highlights this question:

Does God know the difference between Physics and Biology?!

- Stafford Beer

Is there anything in between these categories for which we have no names yet? Will there be some dark places into which our torch light has not reached yet?

We had Electronics and Mechanics as separate disciplines for a long time. Now we have Electro-Mechanics, Bio-Mechanics, Bio-Chemistry and many more inter-disciplinary fields of study. However, these fields have been created because the development lines of each separate field have converged, not because of a deep conviction that maybe we need to take a more holistic view of the whole universe. There are still separate silos, with extra silos built in-between as inter-disciplinary ones.

Holistic Approach

Instead of utilizing a reductionist approach and dealing with separate components why not take a broader look at the whole system?

The term system is unquestionably one of the most widely used terms not only in science, but in other areas of human endeavour as well. It is a highly overworked term, which enjoys different meanings under different circumstances and for different people. However, when separated from its specific connotations and uses, the term system is almost never explicitly defined.

- George Klir, Facets of Systems Science (IFSR International Series in Systems Science and Systems Engineering)

Professor Klir reminds us that whenever we use the term “system” it has almost always a companion that identifies it: physical system, thermo-mechanical system, political system, computer system.

In his book, Facets of Systems Science, he states that for a library, the collection of many books in one place does not create a system. It is not until the books are ordered in a particular way that they become a part of a system.

By observing various kinds of systems, we can identify underlying principles for all kinds of systems. From this standpoint, we can develop this understanding that all systems can be described as a collection of things with a set of relationships between them.

Having this understanding of systems, which can be applied to any organization, we can begin to think about the network of relationships rather than the things themselves.

​This way of thinking is highly non-reductionist and is actually holistic in nature, which can be observed in many eastern philosophies and school of thoughts.

Yin Yang Symbol

​As in the Chinese philosophy of TAO, the yin-yang is the symbol to emphasize that everything has a combination of yin and yang in itself; and even in its peak, there still is a small presence of the other one. Therefore, high and low can be present at the same time. “A” and “Not A” can coexist; thus unequivocally denying the Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction.

We should take on-board eastern thinking as well as western thinking. Because, I think, they understood a lot of this [the holistic view of the universe] from way back; and we have adopted a different model, which has made us far more successful in terms of beating nature and getting rich in various ways, but has left us philosophically, ethically, and emotionally drained.

- Stafford Beer

Having a reductionist approach has tremendous benefits, of course; however, we must note that using a model traps us inside that model.

As an example, if a company has been divided into some departments, any new plan devised for the future of this organization is bound to be expressed in terms of the current model, referring and using the same separate divisions of the organization.

This fact, by itself, inhibits change.

When the change comes, being restricted to a reductionist approach, we can hardly adapt to change in a timely fashion.

The only solution, feasible for a reductionist model, is to re-train and re-organize: develop a different reductionist model for the organization.

We trained hard—but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

- Petronius, 210 BC

What we need is a model of organizations that can adapt to ever present changes in the environment. What Professor Stafford Beer has done with the Viable System Model (VSM) is to observe and understand the organization of the most complex and viable system of all, Human Beings, and to develop a model to enable us organize and manage our affairs in a more viable manner.

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