The Folly of Holism and Emergent Properties
I group ‘Systems Theory’, ‘Self Organization’ and other ‘holistic’ approaches to science together because they all contain a common logical flaw. They specify a piece of Reality to be ‘a system’ and then go on to define the parts of this system in terms of properties of the whole system. It turns out that constructions of this sort can end up attributing to Reality properties that are due solely to the circularity of the definition. Thus “The Whole” can appear as something other than the consequence of its parts and you can end up attributing to Reality absurd properties caused by a bad definition. Such errors even have a name. They are called ‘Vicious Circle Errors.’
In a proper scientific description you first disassemble an interesting piece of Reality into units of structure and function simple enough to understand. Then you demonstrate that those units of structure and function can interact in ways that account for the properties you found interesting in the first place. Only then do you propose a synthesis, ‘The System’, in terms of those independently isolated parts. This is what experimentalists and real theoreticians do. It is not easy and requires talents beyond mere verbal agility to do it successfully. It is called ‘Reductionism.’
If one were a moderately skilled flim-flam artist one could, using holistic definitions, generate strange, even paradoxical properties that would then be attributed to the area of Reality under study. Most competent experimentalists see instinctively that something is wrong with a holistic description (without really understanding why it is wrong) and they dismiss the erroneous model as ‘Vitalism’ (e.g. by Monod in “Chance & Necessity”). I provide below a structurally simple, experimentalist oriented, example of the sort of nonsense one can generate in terms of a holistic definition. I show you how it is done via an appropriately absurd example:
Define a brick holistically, as an object of such and such dimensions, color and composition that is part of a wall. Notice that we define a part of the system (the brick) in terms that involve the whole system (the wall). Now picture the wall knocked down and broken up into its component parts. MAGIC!! The *bricks* have all vanished along with the wall! You have on the ground before you numerous objects shaped and colored like bricks. But they cannot be bricks! A brick was defined holistically in this context as a part of a wall. No wall? Therefore no bricks!
See how simple it is! Now, look at the flim-flam we can generate in terms of our holistic definition:
“The brick-Wall too is holistic! Neither the bricks nor the wall can exist independently of each other. Where is the wall without its’ bricks? How can there be bricks without a wall that contains them? Clearly the wall and its bricks form an indivisible whole. It is a Complex System that defies analysis…”
– Yada Yada
“Like Life, another even more complex Complex System, a brick-wall can grow. This is an Emergent Property a brick-wall shares with Life. One can add appropriate objects to a brick-wall, (i.e. bricks in the usual ‘non-holistic’ sense) and as these objects are incorporated into the wall, the wall grows larger! One feeds the wall appropriate precursors and they become transformed into bricks. ‘Brickness’ then, is also an Emergent Property. This type of transformation is one of the hallmarks of a holistic system. The parts change in contributing to the Whole. It is one more reason Reductionism fails in characterizing a holistic system! We can see many parallels between this Complex System and Life. Perhaps by studying the brick-wall we can increase our understanding of Life…”
– Yada Yada
The virtue of this example is that the reader already knows all about brick walls. He knows for instance that a brick wall can be built from scratch and that bricks exist independently of walls. Thus, there is no way the reader can be fooled into taking the properties of brick walls derived here seriously. Rather he may examine the argument to see where it went wrong. But suppose the same type of holistic reasoning were applied to piece of Reality that is still poorly understood. There the holist might say something like this:
“The reason you don’t understand this System is you are trying to analyze it. But it can’t be analyzed because it is, as I have argued, Holistic. The parts don’t explain the System! Rather the properties of the Whole System explains the parts! The System is unanalyzable and you are wasting your time if you try. The parts have meaning in terms of how they contribute to the Whole. This is a Complex System where the parts depend upon the Whole. If you interfere with the Whole, the System and its parts will vanish and you will be left with nothing.”
This type of argument was used frequently during the 19th and early 20th century to dissuade experimental biologists from attempting to analyze the cell. The strange properties you can crank out in terms of it might have been enough to cause certain individuals with a predisposition for superstition to be fooled by it. But not The Reader! For YOU know that in arguments of this form the conclusions follow not from the nature of Real World entities (bricks and brick walls in our example) but from an error in the way those entities were defined – from a viciously circular ‘holistic’ definition.
Holists will sometimes cite engineering as a model of holistic thinking. They argue that an engineer first conceives of an overall project (say a wall) and then looks for parts to assemble, (say, bricks and mortar), that would make the wall a reality. But this is the process of designing something that doesn’t exist yet, which is what engineers do. As opposed to a viciously circular re-definition of something that already exists, which is what holists do. Two quite different cases.
Emergence is the child of Subjectivity and Ignorance. SOMEONE calls a property Emergent if its appearance surprises HIM and if HE cannot account for it in terms of HIS model of Reality. For example the synthesis of water from hydrogen and oxygen has been used by holists as a poster child for an Emergent Property. Here you have two invisible gases as reactants producing a visible liquid as a product. Wow! Who would have expected something like that? A new property that we didn’t have before! EMERGENCE!
Yet any modern chemist knows that under everyday conditions hydrogen and oxygen, can combine chemically to produce water and that the water presents as a visible liquid. But he also knows that under other sets of conditions water would result from the reaction as an invisible gas and remain a gas as long as those conditions prevailed. Neither is the chemist surprised by the fact that water is a liquid under everyday conditions because he knows that water molecules are dipoles and as such counter their tendency to disperse as a gas by electrostatically bonding to each other. Our sensory system detects collections of electrostatically bonded water molecules as liquid water. If our visual system had a much higher resolution than it actually does, the transition between gas and liquid might appear to us as a continuous process wherein ‘pure gaseous water’ and ‘pure liquid water’ might appear as limiting values of the continuum. At an air/water interface there are water molecules in transition between free water molecules in the gaseous state and bound water molecules in the liquid state. A chemist knows that the loss or gain of bound water at this interface depends upon the values of several variables for its outcome. If he measures these values he can predict whether or how fast the liquid water will evaporate into a gas.
If one did not know better, one might picture the synthesis of water naively as a case of two invisible gases combining to form something qualitatively different – something incommensurable with a gas – a visible liquid – Emergence! But the “Emergence” here, like Beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is in a sense a measure of the beholder’s ignorance about a part of Reality.
“Holism” and “Emergence” are interdefinable. A Holistic System generates Emergent Properties because the system is defined as unanalyzable. An Emergent Property lacks simple, obvious, causal antecedents and this indicates that aspects of the system producing it are unanalyzable and hence Holistic. Given holistic definitions an adept flim-flam artist can crank out Emergent Properties by the score!
A final comment concerning Logic and vicious circle errors:
The early 20th century symbolic logicians, Bertrand Russell, Alfred N. Whitehead and Gotlob Frege, believed logic was more fundamental than mathematics and that one could demonstrate this by creating mathematics in terms of purely logical concepts. When Russell saw that the concept of ‘ subsets of the class of all classes’ led to an inconsistent logic, he had to do something or the whole enterprise would have collapsed then and there. The validity of Logic and its priority over mathematics was a religion for these workers! In his autobiography Russell talks about spending three summers thinking about and playing with instances of what he eventually generalized as vicious circle contradictions. He was able to do this because of a generic *structural* feature they shared. They all used properties of a class as a whole in a way that defined a new member of the class. He abstracted this structural feature from his collection of paradoxes and expressed it as an empirical generalization he called “The Vicious Circle Principle” (Russell & Whitehead “Principia Mathematica,” chapter 2):
“Whatever involves *all* of a collection must not be one of the collection”; or conversely: “If, provided a collection had a total, it would have members only definable in terms of that total, then the said collection has no total”
Frege initially missed seeing the contradiction but when Russell pointed it out, he immediately understood the problem. Another way to express what they saw was that one had to place limits on class construction. It wasn’t enough to assume that an absurd class concept would always lead harmlessly to an empty class. Something more was needed. Viciously circular definitions had to be avoided because some of them made the system inconsistent.
Apparently our brains can not automatically detect vicious circle errors. We have to learn to do this, as Russell and his contemporaries, goaded as they were by the pain of an inconsistent deductive system, discovered. When descriptions incorporating vicious circles are applied to the Real World the results are often more subtle versions of the unanalyzable brick wall discussed above. When they turn up within an Adaptive System found in Reality (and semantic vicious circle errors *can* turn up there because Adaptive Systems all have a memory function and hence have a symbolic component), they are frequently noted for their oddity; like the ‘Founder Principle’, ‘Sexual Selection by Female Preference’ and ‘Periodic Selection’ within evolving Genetic Systems, or ‘The Celebrity’ in Social Systems (as D.J. Boorstin pointed out in his entertaining and insightful book “The Image”). Finally, there is Holism itself, a distorted perception of Reality, that occurs in the minds of certain misguided men.
I end here with a conundrum for any reader who may still retain a holistic bent:
(1) There is a box that contains one object.
(2) The object in the box is as in (1).
Now, are YOU going on a quixotic quest for an infinitely regressive box? Or are you going to look for a flaw in the definition of the box and its contents? Do we have here a description of a wondrous, holistically defined box that displays the Emergent Property of being infinitely regressive? A box that may exist somewhere out there, waiting to be discovered – perhaps by YOU? Or do we have before us a simple error in logic?
What do YOU think?