4. “In some areas of knowledge we try to reduce a complex whole to simple components, but in others we try to integrate simple components into a complex whole.” Discuss this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge

Cargo-CultThis blog post is a set of initial thoughts regarding the Prescribed Title above, #4 Nov 2015. It is not intended to be a model essay plan, nor a set of completed thoughts. It is neither the best, nor the only, answer. This post is just intended to help students start their thinking about this question, and to help initiate discussions between ToK Teachers and their students.

When you start to write this answer you will probably need to define ‘reduce a complex whole to simple components’ and ‘integrate simple components into a complex whole’. The processes of reduction and integration are of particular interest here, they are not necessarily just the opposite of each other.

Possible Knowledge Questions.

Students should write a KQ which best suits the line of argument that they wish to pursue in their essay. The KQ’s that I include here are merely given as examples of the ‘sort’ of questions which may arise from this PT.

1. In which ways do sensory perceptual systems change our understanding of our world ?
2. How could we understand integrated perception as the outcome of evolutionary advantage ?
3. Is it possible to establish whether ‘good art’ exists beyond merely that which is deemed to be the good combination of constituent elements ?
4. Will increasing scientific understanding reduce the totality of human experience ?
5. Is perception of cause and effect relationships a positively adapted inherited trait ?
6. How does our experience of time affect our ability to understand systems ?

There are innumerable other possible KQ’s, so if you’re writing this essay please don’t rely upon one of these – I’m sure that you can develop a better one for your needs.

Whenever I read a new PT I tend to automatically start thinking about arguments against the proposition. The first thing that comes to mind regarding this PT is the concept of synergy (the whole being greater than the sum of the parts). This brings us back to questions as to how we define the components, and how we define a complex whole. If we are not careful the essay could suffer from fragmented over reductionism, or by dwelling in a miasma of over-complexity.

As such we should place the Holism vs Reductionism debate front and centre of this essay. This link contains a very good explanation of the debate. Holism is a useful approach for systems thinking, giving us a useful way to analyse the inter-relationships between complex components. Reductionism has developed from the scientific approach of Parsimony, that is that complex processes are best understood in the simplest, and most basic, form available. This leads to the discussions around Occam’s Razor (see next paragraph). Holism explains systems as generating outcomes which are ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ – i.e. synergy.  There are a surfeit of resources to inform an essay which discusses the essay question in terms of the  holism vs reduction question. However, it is important to remember that the focus of the question is looking at the times / instances when we tend towards reductionist explanations in comparison to the times / instances when we tend towards a more holistic explanation. Extrapolation from real life examples will be essential if you are to include this debate.

Reductionism could be explored through the concept of Occam’s Razor – that the simplest explanation for something is the best explanation. This lends itself particularly well to a scientific method which is primarily concerned with finding causal relationships under highly controlled environments. Whether this applies appropriately to the essay question at hand very much depends upon how you have defined the essay title. However, some may feel that an interesting discussion could be engaged in using this concept alongside pertinent real life examples.

Rather than see the reductionist – holist debate as one concerning explanations I tend towards seeing it in terms of human experiences (my background is in human sciences). As such I  see this in terms of looking at humans through a more phenomenological lens (which I would argue is more holist), or alternatively through a more positivist, nomothetic lens (which I would argue is more reductionist). Such an argument structure might propose that the search for cause and effect within the positivist approach is reductionist in comparison to the focus on descriptive idiographic experience of the phenomenological approach. Any examples drawn from Anthropology, History, Sociology and Cross-cultural Psychology could serve as useful real life examples. The example which comes to mind first for me are the cargo cults of Melanesia during the second world war. Interesting articles concerning these cults can be found here and here.

The notion of interpretation of the possible interaction of elements underpins the essay. As such a discussion around perception of interaction could usefully be developed. Both Constructivist and Ethological psychologists would generally agree with the tenor of the PT. However, in The Gestalt School we find a tendency towards a unified whole over a set of fragmented separates. We generally perceive cause and effect relationships between events which seem to occur closely together in time and space. There are numerous real life examples which could be drawn upon here to exemplify this relationship. I will briefly look at the causes of the First World War (using Human Sciences as an AoK), but students writing this essay could draw upon numerous other examples.

(more) Human Sciences.

When we read histories of the causes of WW1 most historians examine a complex range of interpolating factors, and then come towards a conclusion of a specific dominant cause.  Such dominant causes include:

  • Mutual Defence Alliances (e.g. Nicholas Kollerstrom)
  • Imperialism (e.g. AJP Taylor)
  • German Mobilisation plans (e.g. Luigi Albertini)
  • Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (e.g David James Smith)

There are a range of possibilities of interpretation here. Any one of these factors could be the main reason for war, or all factors could have interacted to cause war, or none of them could have been the cause, they could possibly have been effects of a deeper, unidentified, cause. In such a scenario war is also an effect of this, so far, unidentified cause.

Another RLS, drawn from the human sciences, of mistaken causation could be the explanation for the The Black Death Plague in medieval Europe. At the time the plague was variously believed to be caused by ‘bad air’, or gases emanating from mud on riverbanks, and later blamed on rats. Today we believe that it was caused by bacteria living in the digestive tracts of fleas. However, in the future this explanation could also be shown to be flawed – this explanation is only as good as the science of causation available to us today.

I hope that students can start to see how discussion of a RLS such as the black death could be examined in terms of simplicity and complexity, as identified in the PT. Explanations such as bad air could be seen as ‘simple components’ whereas analysing the possible endosymbiosis of the bacterium could be seen as ‘integration into a complex whole’. Obviously this is very much dependent on how you define the terms of the PT. Further, by making claims about cause and effect without evidence our ancestors could be said to have been trying to “reduce a complex whole into simple components”, whilst also trying to “integrate simple components into a complex system”.  Such an analysis would enable a general agreement with the PT – it’s both reduction and integration.

To further explore, and understand, this question a debate concerning empiricism in interpretation could be useful. Hume’s understanding of empiricism lends itself particularly well to the first part of this PT, namely that human understanding goes little beyond sensory perception. Hume’s “impressions” could be seen as an attempt to reduce a complex whole to simple components, this could also be contrasted with a more rationalist approach by a philosopher such as Spinoza.

However, ToK is not supposed to be a philosophy course, so let’s look back at the original question, and apply processes of evolutionary biology / psychology from The Human Sciences.

Some Natural Sciences (with a human tinge)

The premise of the question could be seen in evolutionary terms, an argument could be constructed that simplification of process has afforded an adaptive advantage in many cases, and therefore becomes apparent “second nature”. On the other hand attribution of apparent complexity in phenomena could enrich our lives, consequently providing us with increased motivation. Many real life examples could be drawn to illustrate these adaptive processes. I would point towards the identification of threats which trigger the stress response as an example of a complex whole reduced to a simple component (which clearly has an adaptive advantage). In support of the other half of the PT, I would cite any phenomena which is experienced as being primarily aesthetic in nature. Such examples might be drawn from love, music, food, visual art or clothing fashions. Each of these, it could be argued, are comprised of a set of simple components. It is in the specific combination of those components that a synergistic effect of a more complicated whole might be realised. The evolutionary advantage of these aesthetic phenomena could be argued in terms of distinctiveness in selection. Of course, as usual, I strongly recommend students to develop their own examples, and to apply them as they see fit in order to answer their specific question. Some students may choose to argue for one side of the PT over the other, this is just as acceptable, and can attract just as many marks, as the approach that I have outlined above.

AoK The Arts

All art forms can be seen through the lens of the title – either as a set of simple components, or as an integration of a set of components into a complex whole. There are numerous real life situations that students can draw upon, a few (very) select examples may be the sound of a symphony orchestra playing together, the colours in a painting, the curves of sculpture, the elements of plot in a film or novel, the cinematographic elements of a film, the steps of suspense in a thriller, the individual bricks which comprise a great cathedral etc . Such real life examples could be analysed in terms of the holism vs reductionism debate.

However you choose to write this essay I hope that this blogpost has given you some ideas, some thoughts as to relevant real life situations, and inspired some debates with which to engage. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments section.

Enjoy your ToK thinking & writing !



Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s