In Ancient Greece, Plato described objects in terms of the theory of Forms. It was said that, for every type of object—house, door, cat, human—there is a perfect version of it, its Form. The Forms were said to exist non-physically and timelessly. Thus, reality was thought to be made of objects attempting to mimic their corresponding perfect Forms.
The theory of Forms may be useful in some contexts, but it doesn’t do well at describing physical reality. In the relatively static ancient world, it made sense, but in modern times with historically rapid technological and scientific progress, not as much. Has there always been a Form of a spaceship? A cell phone? The internet? What about the way some languages have words for objects that others don’t? It seems much more likely that Forms only exist as concepts within our minds, not in external objective reality.
Reductionism and Holism
In the era of science, another theory has arisen: reductionism. We observed that things are made out of parts, and those parts are made out of smaller parts, and the chain continues quite awhile. Finding the fundamental building blocks of the universe became a goal of modern physics, and some came to the belief that these building blocks are the true reality, and everything emergent from them is just our perception, less real or not real at all. This view is called reductionism.
Counter to reductionism, there is holism, the view that any system that functions as a whole and has properties that are different from the properties of its parts is a real object. Some stronger versions of holism even claim that certain higher-level emergent objects are more real than the parts they are made of.
Reductionism and holism are both perspectives and metaphysical theories. As perspectives, whether they are valid or not depends on the context. Today, we are examining them as metaphysical theories.
Which is true, reductionism or holism? Are higher-level objects real, or are only the smallest, most reducible parts they are made from? To explore this question, let’s take a detour into math. Consider the following expressions:
1 + 2
2 + 1
(1 + 1) + 1
1 + (1 + 1)
1/2 + 2 + 1/2
What is the difference in the ideas each of these expressions represent? The answer: nothing! They all represent the number three, divided into arbitrary pieces.
Let’s take this analogy to physical reality. If we cut a sandwich into four pieces, does it become four sandwiches? If we put four full-sized sandwiches together at the corners, do we get one big sandwich? The answer is not a question of metaphysics, it is a question of semantics. It only depends on how we decide to define the words.
Just like how the number of numbers we divide a math expression into does not change what it represents, neither does reductionism describe a different reality than holism. Holism is merely putting the parentheses in different places (and, as we will see in next week’s quantum physics discussion, reductionism ends up doing that too). As metaphysical theories, neither reductionism nor holism measure up. They are both equally valid descriptions of the same reality!
Thus, we come to a profound realization: the universe is not inherently made out of objects; objects are human constructions. The universe is one thing, and it is infinitely many things. There is no difference. It’s all up to how we look at it.
For me, to see a door as a door, and as wood, and as wood cells, and as organic molecules, and as atoms, and as subatomic particles, and as interacting quantum fields, and to know that all of these are equally true, and none is more or less true than any other, is awe-inspiringly profound. To see myself as one person, and as two halves of a brain, and as a trillion cells, and as a part of the universe where the boundary between me and everything else is just a mental construction; that is nothing short of spiritual.
A Scientist’s Fiction is featured on Feedspot’s list of top 50 science fiction blogs! If you have some free time, and are interested in science and science fiction, why not check out some of the other creators there?