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Study Notes

Issues & Debates: Evaluating the Holism and Reductionism Debate


Last updated 28 May 2018

Scientists (including psychologists) are drawn to reductionist explanations as a method of research.

For example, most experimental psychology is based on the assumption that human behaviour can be studied effectively in relatively simple experiments, where complex behaviour is reduced to isolated variables (known as experimental reductionism). This allows researchers to study the different factors that influence human behaviour in a controlled manner while establishing a causal relationship. This would not be possible if psychologists attempted to study all of the factors that influence human behaviour at once, as it would be too complex to interpret the findings.

Furthermore, both biological and environmental reductionism are viewed as scientific. Breaking complex behaviours into small constituent parts means that they can be scientifically tested and over time explanations based on scientific evidence will emerge. In addition, biological reductionism has led to the development of biological therapies, such as drugs. For example, SSRIs are more effective than placebos at treating the symptoms of OCD and reduce the symptoms for up to three months after the treatment (Soomro et al., 2008). The use of SSRIs in patients with OCD has helped to reduce the anxiety associated with OCD thus providing relief for some patients.

Criticism of reductionism takes many forms. Some psychologists argue that biological reductionism can lead to errors of understanding because it ignores the complexity of human behaviour. For example, to treat conditions like ADHD with drugs in the belief that the condition consists of nothing more than neurochemical imbalances is to mistake the symptoms of the phenomenon for its true cause. Ritalin may reduce these symptoms, but the conditions which gave rise to the ADHD have not been addressed. Whether or not this is true depends on what one thinks of as causation, but since success rates of drug therapy are so highly variable, the purely biological understanding seems inadequate.

The critique of environmental reductionism is as much methodological as it is substantive. Much of the relevant research in the behaviourist tradition has made use of non-human animals as subjects. The classic Pavlovian experiments are an iconic example. But is human behaviour simply a scaled-up version of that of dogs or rats? Critics of reductionism point to the social context in which humans are embedded from the earliest moments of life, and to hard-to-measure factors like cognition, emotion, and intentionality. In this case as well, the reductionist position seems, if not clearly incorrect, then at least inadequate.

The holistic explanation attempts to blend different levels of explanation; holistic theory and approaches attempt to provide a complete and realistic understanding of human behaviour. However, holistic explanations do not establish causation because they do not examine behaviour in terms of operationalised variables that can be manipulated and measured. This means that holistic explanations are view as unscientific.

Holism and Reductionism

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