The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

Understanding Reductionist vs. Holistic Thinking

Reductionist thinking rules the world.  Without it, technology and the progress that comes with it would not have occurred and we would have very little in the way of sciences.  The modern world as we know it would not exist without the technical marvels that come from putting pieces together in novel ways to create often spectacular new inventions, many of which change our lives in profound ways.

Reductionist thinking works perfectly for this:

Which is made from this:


A car is a very complex thing, but you can break it down to its individual parts and understand them in detail.  We can know how these parts fit together and how they function when they are assembled.  By understanding its parts and how they function together we can know absolutely everything important there is to know about a car.   This is reductionism at its finest.  Most of the sciences see things in this fashion because frankly, it works.  By understanding all the little pieces and seeing how they fit together, you can understand the mechanisms.  And understanding mechanisms gives you power over the process and an ability to adapt it to many uses.

Reductionism has been highly successful in so many areas that one of the most basic problems with this approach has been virtually ignored.  Try to apply reductionism to this:

Can anger be broken down into its pieces?  What pieces?  The movement of the face is not anger; the reaction of the body is not anger; they are processes associated with anger, but they are not the thing itself.  Does understanding how the body functions when a person is angry help you understand anger?  No, not in the slightest.  Anger, -and all emotions for that matter,- can only be understood as a whole.  You cannot put pieces together and get anger from them because the pieces do not convey the essence of anger.  No one doubts that machine bolts, camshafts and pistons can convey the essence of a car.  Their function in creating a car is obvious.  But there is is no way to see the reactions of the body and understand how they can convey anger.  The only way to understand the reactions of the body, is to first understand anger.  There are some emotions that don’t even elicit body reactions.

Can you really apply any reductionism to this emotion?  It’s very clear that sarcasm is being conveyed, but there is absolutely no way to reduce this to a set of physical reactions.  Sarcasm is not the slow clap nor the look in the eyes, nor those two things combined because this emotion can be conveyed with different gestures. If you didn’t know what sarcasm was, it would be very hard to even explain. For that matter, the anger shown above would also be hard to explain. Why is that?

Emotions are acts of consciousness and consciousness is hard to explain because our minds and vocabulary is inherently reductionist and consciousness is irreducible.  That’s the problem in its most basic form.  You cannot approach consciousness with a reductionist mindset or with reductionist tools because none of this works in comprehending what consciousness is.  Nowhere is this more evident than neurobiology.

Discovering how mechanistic processes work – the firing of neurons or the earth revolving around the sun, for example – is considered by some to be an “easy” problem because it involves observation, the description of an event from a third person point of view. “Hard” problems, on the other hand, involve first person experience. They’re the questions that persist even after physical processes have been mapped and explained.

Not only is the brain vastly more complex than previously thought, none of this tells us how we get from dendrites, gamma waves and neurons to sarcasm.  Understanding consciousness requires that we absorb the idea without getting into details.  This kind of thinking runs exactly the opposite of how science works.

I’m sitting here, writing at a computer on a program that exists on the internet and I can and do communicate my ideas all over the whole wide world.  Everything that made this possible was the result of reductionist thinking.  The machines, the networks, the structure of the companies that create them, the economic system that makes this production possible, the network of roads, the planes, the boats that carry the parts around the world are all part of a vast reductionist machinery that has been running western civilization for a couple of millennia at least.  Certainly reductionist thinking has been very, very good to us.

How did we all manage to do something so outrageously stupid as to put ourselves into a position where the fate of the world was decided by one man?

And yet . . . and yet . . . the world had to be saved in 1962 from nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis by a guy born to a peasant family outside of Moscow in 1926.  Vasili Arkhipov, deputy commander of the Soviet submarine B-59, one of three officers aboard the vessel who all had to agree unanimously to launch a nuclear missile, had an attack of sanity and refused to agree with the political officer and the captain to launch a nuclear missile.  (Read the story here.  It’s #6)  You can thank this guy for not sending the human race into extinction.  The Soviets did.  They eventually made him a vice admiral.

While we weren’t there with him at the time, his thinking process is fairly easy to follow:  “Hmm, let’s see . . . launch missile, start war, destroy everything.  This is a BAD idea.  Nyet.”  This is an example of how holistic thinking works.  Arkhipov was in a submarine surrounded by American ships who were using depth charges to either destroy the sub or get it to surface.  (And by the way, what idiot thought that it was a good idea to bomb a sub carrying nuclear missiles?)  He was under some pressure, to put it mildly.  Everyone else, including the Americans, were looking at their particular piece on this nuclear chessboard and reacting only to what was in front of them, oblivious to the obvious consequences.  Arkhipov was the only one who got the big holistic picture:  If a shooting war with nukes got started, nobody would win.  Yes, this is the world’s greatest irony . . . ever.  At the height of the cold war, a commie saved the free world.  The question that this situation raises is this:  How did we all manage to do something so outrageously stupid as to put ourselves into a position where the fate of the world was decided by one man?

This isn’t merely an historical problem.  Reductionist thinking regularly leads to horrific reasoning.   There is more to reductionist thinking than just looking at things in terms of their parts, reductionist thinking is analytical: it suppresses emotion and thereby distorts values, ignores long term consequences and dehumanizes people.  Intermediate goals become more important than strategic ones.  Have you ever wondered why the U.S. is still in Afghanistan when there is absolutely nothing to be gained by it?  Why do American officials say that we’ll be there for many more years?  The answer is J.P. Morgan.  There’s gold in them thar hills.  Does it seem far fetched that the United States would spend billions defending the profits of a banker?  Here is an excerpt from Smedley Butler‘s book: War is a Racket:  (Who was Smedley Butler?  Former commandant of the United States Marine Corp and most decorated marine EVER.  Oh, and he saved the United States from a fascist coup.)

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given [mobster] Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

There may be additional shenanigans that I don’t know about, but this is business as usual. What we have is a situation where a sovereign nation puts its military in harms way in order to protect private business interests.  When viewed with a reductionist mindset, this makes sense.  Strong business = strong America.  We are causing untold suffering at home and abroad through policies set via a corporatist  agenda designed to value profit over human lives.  You can only come up with this insanity if you place no value on emotions, which is exactly what happens with logical, reductionist thinking.  From a holistic standpoint of course, this state of affairs, this is pure evil.    Evil, however, doesn’t even exist in reductionist thinking.  Everything is reduced to choices.  Holistic thinking embraces such concepts as “enough” and “sharing” because individual gain is seen in the context of larger groups which can expand to include the whole world.  Reductionist thinking tends to embrace “lack,” “hoarding” and “winning” because individual gain is not seen in any larger context.

Mostly, a reduction mindset is a trap of sorts because it greatly limits the ability to see “the big picture.”  This becomes a trap because the big picture of someone caught in reductionist thinking appears to be bigger than it really is.  The intermediate picture seems like the big one.  For example, particle physics has been pursuing versions of string theory for thirty years despite serious flaws in this theory and has managed to avoid dealing with obvious signs of consciousness in physics for eighty years.

You can see this mindset at work in capitalist economies even now, where fabulous wealth is in the hands of a tiny few who have so many millions of dollars that they will never personally spend or enjoy 99% of this money in any way.  The idea that this concentration of wealth causes human suffering is completely absent from capitalist economic theory because it isn’t big enough to incorporate that idea.

Holistic thinking is very, very threatening to people who think in terms of reductionism because it undermines their whole set of values.  If you strongly value wealth, power, prestige and fame, as reductionists tend to do, it can be very uncomfortable to have someone broach the idea that these values are not as important as caring, empathy and a general sense of humanity.  If you’ve stayed with me so far, you can see where I’m going with this.  This is the reason that so many scientists have fought any notion of an expanded role for consciousness in science for over a hundred years; it’s not just a radical concept, it completely challenges not only their perceptions of the world, but their perceptions of themselves as well.

People who favor holistic thinking however, do not share this discomfort.  Because of the inclusive nature of holistic thinking, reductionist thinking is seen as only one method of thinking, rather than a way of life, and so is the holistic thinking itself.  The values that accompany holistic thinking, such as love, compassion, cooperation, understanding and empathy, are very basic and solid and therefore are not easily threatened.

The whole struggle to understand the true nature of consciousness must be seen in this light.  It is a struggle not just of ideas, but of values that impact our entire civilization.  It is not an easy thing to change, but it has sweeping implications.

11 comments on “Understanding Reductionist vs. Holistic Thinking

  1. compassioninpolitics
    December 17, 2016

    Interesting and compelling case. Can you unpack this statement for me “If you strongly value wealth, power, prestige and fame, as reductionists tend to do, it can be very uncomfortable to have someone broach the idea that these values are not as important as caring, empathy and a general sense of humanity. “

    • Chris George
      July 28, 2017

      The first group of values have easily quantifiable metrics attached; ie. they can be reduced to different parts and evaluated. The values themselves can be seen as parts of “successful human”. The final three values are wholes. You cannot measure empathy in dollars, caring by the number of houses a person owns, or sense of humanity by how many appearances on Oprah a person has had. The weighting of all of the values as a whole requires a moral judgment, something that doesn’t work well with reductionist thinking.

  2. yahenatem
    February 23, 2016

    Good article! Here is the other I liked on that topic

  3. Pingback: Use Common Sense to Become More Flexible | The Talkative Man

  4. insomniac
    January 12, 2012

    Off topic, but i wonder if you have seen this video. He comes across as sincere to me. What’s your take on this guy and what he has to say?

    • craigweiler
      January 12, 2012

      I just saw the video and read a few of the comments. He does seem sincere to me, but I don’t speak French and cannot assess his speech at all. I don’t know what to make of it.

    • neilmiller
      January 15, 2012

      If the Frenchman was that good, accurate, specific in his predictions as he seemed to be in that video, he’d be world famous by now and, most likely quite rich.
      the moon in 1969, chernobyl in the 80’s, 9/11, have you heard of anyone this accurate, ever? the history of psychic predicitions that I’m aware of never had -even Edgar Cayce wasn’t that good.

      Until there’s ironclad proof this guy is real I say he’s a hoax.


      • craigweiler
        January 16, 2012

        Saying that someone is a hoax is a claim that requires proof. As there is no proof one way or the other, the best we can say is that this is unresolved.

        You can claim that he should be world famous by now, but it’s just as possible that these predictions were long forgotten.

        We don’t know who did the video so we don’t know whether the guy became rich and many truly psychic people generally don’t value wealth and fame all that much in any case. The guy may have valued his privacy more. We don’t know.

        The alien thing in 2012 seems very far fetched and I frankly think it’s completely off base and a red herring. Psychically, I think that something this huge would show up for me and it doesn’t.

  5. insomniac
    January 6, 2012

    Good job! Just reading about those two types of thinking in a book by Tony Wright…. “Left in the Dark”. He puts the shift from holistic to reductionist thinking on the shift from a rich diet of fruits and nuts to hunter-gatherer fare. It is a good read.

    I think you are right, that we wouldn’t have such a technological society without the narrowness of thought that characterizes the western scientific world view. Can we learn from the experience? =-)

  6. neilmiller
    January 5, 2012

    nice job. you’re starting to paint on a much larger canvass, it’s inspiring. this is also a big step-up (a.k.a. evolution of consciousness) from skeptics are “knuckle dragging losers.”


  7. Monica
    January 5, 2012

    Wow. This is like putting words into the way I’ve been understanding people for a long time. Thank you! This post is brilliant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on January 5, 2012 by in Consciousness, parapsychology and tagged , , , , , , .
<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: