Reductionism VS Holism


Today I talk about a philosophical  topic related to AI and problem solving in general . I was inspired by the very interesting Blog “Monica’s Mind” of Monica Anderson, an AI Scientist. Most of this post is based on her exciting post Could AI Be Easy ? . Actually this post really changes the way one’s mind should think.

Monica Claims that two different ways could be adopted to solve a problem : “Reductionism” & “Holism” .


Reductionism -from my point of view- is the basis of how any man starts to solve a complex problem. He divides the problem into sub-problems, analyzes them, find their solutions and may divide them to sub-sub problems for more simplification. It is the basis of the western science . Aristotle said “The whole equals the sum of its parts” implying that if you understood the parts, then you fully understood the whole.

The criticisms targeting these reductions have always been variations on the theme that “this reduction discards something important so the answer you get is incomplete or incorrect”. The alternative to reduction is to consider wholes rather than parts:


Monica claims there’s an opposing point of view to Reductionism (which is the base of science in my opinion) ,which is Holism. Its Slogan is “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”. An approach is considered to be holistic if it analyzes the problem as a whole without dividing it into sub-problems. Holistic Methods are also called “Model Free Methods”.  From 1650 to the 1920’s the Holistic viewpoint was largely suppressed by the barrage of successes produced by people using Reductionist methods.

Holism merged with Reductionism

A Holistic stance was useful in getting an overview, to see what problems existed and which ones would be appropriate to attack, but once you were working on a problem, the only tools available were the tools of Reductionism. “Holists had the superior ontology while the Reductionists were the masters of method” . In this manner, we solved thousands of scientific and engineering problems over the past three centuries.

So what’s the new significance of Holism ?Before we talk about this, Lets understand another important term :

Bizarre Domains

Problems of the kind “Bizarre” are found to be once deeply complex, irreducible, riddled with ambiguities, and to exhibit emergent effects.The thing that makes certain problem domains deserve the “Bizarre Domain” label is that no useful models can be built of these domains.

Examples on Bizarre problems:

  • The world is Bizarre. Any attempt to model the world, completely or in significant part, will fail. Models cannot be made of the global economy, or stock markets
  • The Mind is Bizarre. The Brain is too complex to be modeled. Intelligence is Bizarre.
  • Language is Bizarre. All attempts to model human languages using grammars etc. to date have failed and will continue to fail. The meaning of language cannot be retrieved from a grammatical analysis.


Monica claims that Although there’s a possibility that Bizarre Domains will be solved by Reductionist methods in the future, But real progress at the core of any Bizarre Domain requires adopting Holistic Methods.