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Pragmatic Holism - Bruce Edmonds

6 Heuristics in the search for truth

So whichever is our belief about the abstract reductionist/holist question, we are left with very similar pragmatic choices of action when faced with an overly complex problem. Here reductionist techniques will be of little practical value for us as limited beings and we have to look to other alternatives if we want to make progress on them. Whether you choose another (possibly less successful) approach, depends upon the trade-off between the difficulty of reduction and the importance of progress (of what ever kind) being made onthat problem. In the end, the biggest practical difference between a reductionist and a holist is often only that a reductionist then chooses another problem where the reductionist technique has more chance of success and the holist chooses alternative avenues of attack upon the same problem.

The point is that there is no necessity to prejudge this decision for every case, neither to always say that alternative types of knowledge are worthless, despite the importance of the problem nor to say that it is never worth abandoning a problem because of the type of knowledge that is likely to be gained about it. I call these the extreme reductionist and extreme holist positions respectively.

To hold to the extreme reductionist position in a practical sense, one must surely claim that no problem is so much more important than other more susceptible problems to be worth swapping the sort of analytic knowledge that results from reductionist approaches for other types of knowledge. This can be a result of one of several subsidiary claims:

  1. that all problems are practically susceptible - this would amount to denying any practical limitations upon ourselves at all;

  2. that there are always a near indefinite supply of equally important problems - denying any real difference in the importance of problems, regardless of circumstance;

  3. or that alternative forms of knowledge are always effectively worthless - presumably including the reductionist thesis itself!

To hold to the extreme holist position in a practical sense, one would have to claim that either there was no advantage to reductionist knowledge as compared to another type in any circumstances or that a problem was so important that it was not appropriate for anyone to research any other, more amenable, problems.

These would both be extreme positions indeed! I know of no one that holds them in these forms. The rest of us fall somewhere in between in practice: we accept that there are some worthwhile problems where the reductionist technique works well and we also accept that there are problem domains where the chances of a reductionist technique working are so remote and the problem so important that we would value other forms of knowledge about it.

This does not mean that we will all have the same priorities in particular cases, just that these decisions are essentially a pragmatic ones differing in degree only. Once attention switches from the sterile abstract question of whether in principle all problems are amenable to a reductionist approach (and thus implicitly excluding the extreme positions outlined above), we can start to consider the rich set of possible strategies for making such choices in different cases*1. This is has been up to now a largely uncharted area, but one that might pay rich dividends.

Pragmatic Holism - Bruce Edmonds - 22 FEB 96
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